Economy

What to Do If You Get a Call That Your Child Has Been Kidnapped

A phone call comes out of the blue and a menacing voice tells you your child has been kidnapped — and you'd better pay up or else you'll never see them again. The caller demands more and more money to keep your child alive, however, and won't let you speak to your child to confirm they're okay. And if you do one thing wrong, or tell one stranger, then the unthinkable happens.

Fortunately, while the panic is real, the call itself was a scam. It's called "virtual kidnapping," and it's an abduction that has no victim, only a demand for ransom for a child who hasn't been kidnapped and is in no danger. The callers are far away, usually overseas, and are unlikely to be caught.  

These incidents are rare, and the FBI told CNBC that when it does happen many of the calls aren't reported, out of either fear or embarrassment. When they are publicized, they tend to became major local news stories, though.

Such is the case for one virtual kidnapping call in Ogden, Utah, this month. A father got a call saying his daughter had been kidnapped, but he was able to keep the "kidnapper" on the phone long enough to confirm she was in no danger. He then went to the police and the press to warn others of the scam. 

Another high-profile virtual kidnapping took place in October 2016, when a Washington, D.C.-area mom was scammed out of $9,100 by scammers who convinced her that her daughter had been snatched. Wealthy enclaves of the D.C. area get a large share of virtual kidnapping calls, as do more affluent parts of New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Boston.

Virtual kidnapping is not new, nor is it strictly a U.S. problem. As private intelligence firm Stratfor writes in an analysis of the phenomenon, "While virtual kidnappings have not been widely seen in the United States and Europe, they have long been common in parts of Latin America and Asia, particularly in Mexico, Brazil, Taiwan and the Philippines."

The issue has plagued Mexico for nearly a decade, going back to 2008 when the The York Times called virtual kidnapping "Mexico's latest crime craze." The FBI notes that many of the recent kidnapping callers speak heavily accented English. At least one recently cracked virtual kidnapping ring was running from a notorious Mexican prison.

Since catching the scammers is virtually impossible, the FBI cautions that prevention is key. In a press release related to New York-area calls in 2015, the agency said to be on the lookout for certain indicators of a scam call, including:

  • Incoming calls come from an outside area code
  • Calls do not come from the kidnapped victim’s phone
  • Callers go to great lengths to keep you on the phone
  • Callers prevent you from calling or locating the “kidnapped” victim
  • Ransom money is only accepted via wire transfer service

In the unlikely event you do get a virtual kidnapping call, the FBi advises staying calm and trying to slow the situation down. Request to speak to the victim directly, ask for details about them, try to reach the victim via social media, and request the victim call you back from their phone. When you have confirmation your loved one is okay, hang up. 

As Stratfor's analysis puts it, "virtual kidnapping attempts can be alarming, but they do not have to be economically damaging. By keeping their wits, potential victims can keep their money."