Virtual Kidnapping Is a Scary Stalking Scam
When most people think about kidnappings, they think of those famous movie scenes: a child is stolen right off the street, and then the kidnapper calls the parents asking for a ransom. In today’s age of internet and social media scams, however, things have taken a different and very scary turn.
Let’s look at Valerie Sobel. She got a call and the person said this: “We have your daughter’s finger. Pay up or you’ll get the rest of her body in a body bag.” Terrified, Valerie rushed to a money transfer location and wired $4,000 to the person who claimed to have her child. Many hours passed, and she called her daughter’s cell phone over and over again. Finally, her daughter, Simone, called her. She was perfectly safe, was never kidnapped, and totally confused by Valerie’s messages.
This scam is called “virtual kidnapping for ransom.” Basically, the scammer calls random numbers hoping to find a person they can convince. Sometimes they research Facebook or other public facing sites for names and numbers. This isn’t that complicated. People are gullible. And what mom wouldn’t empty the bank account to save her child? If a scammer calls 100 people, chances are high that one of them will pay instantly.
Here’s another way it might work: the scammer calls someone and the person who answers hears a child or teenage crying. Maybe even from a movie clip. The voice of the child utters “Mom,” and immediately, the person’s panic sets in. The child asks for help, and then a man’s voice is heard. The man asks if this is Ms. so and so, and then things get really terrifying. The man is calling the phone call recipient by her name, and a child, who probably sounds very much like her own daughter, is crying.
Once the scammer has the mother hooked, he tells the woman that the daughter is kidnapped, and if she doesn’t pay a ransom, her daughter will die.
Can you see how easy it would be to fall for this scam? If you have children, you should say “yes.”
This scam has been going on since at least 2015, and it has affected thousands of people. One of the hot spots for this scam is Los Angeles, and at least 250 people have fallen for it. This cost the victims a total of about $114,000.
Many people take these calls seriously. One reason is because they are totally shocked by the call. Most people don’t even realize that this is a scam attempt, and their brains immediately switch into panic mode.
One of the tell-tale signs that this is a scam is the phone number. Many of them originate from Mexico. If you don’t know anyone from Mexico, this is a sign that it’s a scam. Some people, however, do have people from Mexico as a friend or family member, so they might not think twice. Many people also Google these numbers and it’s immediately apparent that they are associated with virtual kidnappings.
One of the big questions here is how seriously are authorities taking these scams. One victim, Kishau Rogers, got this call about her daughter. As soon as the “kidnapper” asked her for the ransom, she called 911. The dispatcher contacted the school, which confirmed that her daughter was there. Rogers said that the school officer contacted the police and filed a report, but the 911 dispatcher didn’t seem concerned about it.
One of the big questions that Rogers had about the incident was how did the scammer know how to say her first name. It’s unusual, and he said it perfectly when he called. She then realized that she had posted several links to her social media pages about how to pronounce her name. Thus, Rogers believes that the scammer saw that before contacting her.
Though it is now obvious that Rogers was scammed, it’s certainly not obvious when these phone calls occur. If you are thrown into this situation, and you believe your child is going to be killed, you will certainly take it very seriously. So, it’s very important that you put in some safety policies if you have children and be aware of these scams.
The way the bad guys do this scam varies. In most cases, however, the caller targets a random area code, and then calls numbers until they can find someone to fall for their tricks. In other cases, the scammers have done some research online and learned information about their targets on social media. This way, they know some information about the person they are calling, including the names of their children, spouse, where they work, etc.
Either way, caller says that a family member, usually a child, has been kidnapped, and they will be hurt or killed unless the target pays a ransom. Most of the people who fell victim to this scam ended up sending their ransom payments to Mexican accounts, but in other examples, the victims were also asked to make a physical money drop in the United States.
Experts who are aware of these scams suggest that families come up with a strategy to get in touch with their loved ones just in case something like this happens. For instance, consider talking to your child’s school about this scam so if they get a panicky phone call from a parent, they can quickly react. It is also recommended that you have a secret word, so that if you ever get a call like this, you can ask the person on the other end of the line what that secret word is. The most important thing, of course, it to remain aware.
Women aren’t the only ones who get these calls, so make sure everyone in your home knows about this scam. In 2015, even a sergeant from the LAPD got the call. He said that there was a woman at the other end of the call who screamed “Daddy, help me!” The sergeant didn’t recognize the voice, but then a male voice quickly got on the line and threatened to kill the daughter of the sergeant if he didn’t pay up. At the time, the sergeant was not on duty and driving, but he saw on-duty police officers and flagged them down.
He said those officers immediately contacted his daughter’s school and found that she was safe. The big takeaway from the sergeant’s story is this: fear is going to take over when you get one of these calls, and if a police sergeant is going to fall for it, odds are good that you will too.
The FBI has a recommendation for anyone who gets a phone call like this: immediately report it to authorities, and never send the person any money.