FBI Portland
Beth Anne Steele
(503) 460-8099
August 15, 2017

FBI Tech Tuesday: Building a Digital Defense Against Virtual Kidnapping Scams

Welcome to the Oregon FBI’s Tech Tuesday segment. This week: building a digital defense against virtual kidnapping scams.

So what is a virtual kidnapping scam? It starts with a phone call, text, or e-mail. The scammer tells you that he has abducted your child, grandchild or maybe a spouse—and he demands money in exchange for their safe return. Sound familiar? It is the opening scene of a lot of movies and TV shows. However, there is a key difference between kidnapping with intent to ransom, which is very rare and virtual kidnapping, which happens a lot. In a virtual kidnapping, the bad guy hasn't actually abducted anyone. He just wants you to think that he has.

The scammer’s goal is to stress you out so much that you don't take time to consider that the kidnapping is fake. He might try to intimidate you by pretending to be a gang member or a corrupt police officer. He might tell you that your loved one owes him money for a car accident, drug debt, or something similar that could discourage you from calling law enforcement. In some cases, scammers have even had an accomplice scream in the background. In almost all cases, the bad guy will threaten violence against his “victim” if you disobey him. He often has the ability to spoof—or copy —the alleged victim’s number. He wants to cause panic, fear, and a sense of urgency because those feelings stop you from thinking clearly.

So how do you protect yourself?

  • Be cautious about what you post on social media. In particular, consider waiting to post about foreign travel until after you return. Some scammers call every number with a certain area code, but others research their targets.
  • Let the people close to you know when you will be traveling to places without cell service or Internet connection.
  • Know the red flags: Did the call come from a phone other than the victim’s? Was the call from an area code far from where your loved one lives? Did the caller insist that the ransom had to be paid by wire transfer? Did he try to keep you on the phone?
  • If you do receive a ransom call, try to stay calm. Slow the situation down by writing things down or telling the caller that you need time to do what he’s asking. Request to speak to the victim. Try to contact your loved one by other means, such as text or social media.
  • Remember—stranger-to-stranger kidnappings are very rare. However, if you believe a real kidnapping has occurred or if you are not sure, call 911.

Overall, when it comes to online scams—if you feel as though a fraudster has victimized you, report your suspicions to law enforcement. You can file an online report at the FBI’s Internet Crime Compliant Center at www.ic3.gov or call your FBI local office.