Imagine one day you suddenly get a call from a strange number. You stare at your phone for a minute and attempt to determine what the call may be regarding. Maybe you got behind on a bill that month. Maybe it’s someone you know calling from an unfamiliar number.
Against your better judgment you decide to pick up the call. You hear the sound of a few heavy breaths before the voice of a stranger begins to come through.
This stranger says that they have your son or daughter. They have your adult child bound and gagged, and they’re going to kill them unless you agree to pay a ransom of $25,000. Muttering through the rest of the conversation in a state of disbelief, you hang up the phone and you feel a heaviness in your chest.
Though your thoughts are racing, you may begin think about what course of action you can take next. Your first thought may be to try your son or daughter’s cell phone. You dial their number and your son or daughter picks up the phone. That’s when you discover that the phone call you had received stating that your child is in imminent danger was all an elaborate hoax. But what if your son or daughter hadn’t answered the phone?
This may sound like a campy scenario from a Lifetime original movie, but that’s exactly what happened to a woman named Claudia.
Claudia, who asked me not to publish her real name, tells me that approximately three years ago she almost became a victim of this bizarre extortion scheme. Her daughter, who was in her twenties and attending NYU at the time, had went out with some friends to a movie one evening. She called a cab for a ride back to her dorm and accidentally left her phone in the cab driver’s car. Two days later Claudia says she awoke to a phone call from her daughter’s phone.
Answering the phone and expecting to hear the soft voice of her daughter, Claudia was instead met by the booming voice of a man with an indistinguishable thick accent. “He said ‘We have your daughter and we will kill her if you do not send us the money.’” Claudia recalls of the terrifying phone call she received.
“I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t have $25,000. How am I going to come up with $25,000?”
Several hours after the call Claudia was able to get in touch with her daughter through social media and that’s when she discovered that the phone call she had received was all part of a disturbing new scam.
The FBI calls it “virtual kidnapping,” and stories similar to Claudia’s have been growing within the past few years. In January of 2015, the FBI posted a bulletin to their website warning people in the metro areas of New York, Nevada, Texas and Arizona of the scam. Some scammers are more elaborate in their tactics than the caller Claudia had spoken with – taking the time to learn more about their targets through social media and involving co-conspirators to convince an alleged victim’s family that their loved one is in imminent danger.
According to the FBI, many of these con-artists are based in Mexico or Puerto Rico and criminal prosecution is practically impossible. Most of these scammers change numbers frequently and block the number so it isn’t traceable.
As of right now, the best advice the FBI can offer to potential targets of this scam is to be alert. If you received one of these phone calls, ask the caller for more time and slow down the conversation. Use the time to try to contact the loved one who has allegedly been kidnapped and sort out the details before agreeing to wire any money. The FBI also recommends phoning the police immediately.
Apprehending one of these groups may not be affective in curbing the trend, but by remaining vigilant, targets of these scams can prevent themselves from becoming a victim.