You’re at work and your phone rings. It’s a strange international number. Normally, you don’t answer calls from numbers you don’t recognize, but this feels different. You pick up. A man with a thick accent starts talking. “We have your son. We want $100,000 wired to us today. You have 12 hours.”

It’s anyone’s worst nightmare and it’s happening more often — only people aren’t actually being kidnapped. Their loved ones are just tricked into thinking they have been.

This social engineering fraud, called an Impostor Scam, targets everyone — not just the elderly, not just the lovelorn, not just those careless with their personal information. Through deception and manipulation, these criminals can exploit a person’s trust and learn just about anything: banking details, passwords, credit card numbers.

The Federal Trade Commission ranks Impostor Scams as the third most popular, behind identity theft (second) and debt collection (first) in 2017. The FTC reports 1 in 5 people fell victim to an impostor scam in 2017 to the tune of $328 million. These scams included phone calls requesting a wire transfer (or credit card payment) to a fake government official, tech support, or to a loved one in trouble. The Australian Competition & Consumer Commission reported 33,000 threat-based impersonation scams last year, with over $4.7 million lost to these sophisticated scammers.

Virtual kidnapping is a new take on this scam that is targeting people globally and has grown significantly in popularity since 2015. Victims receive a phone call from a scammer, claiming that they have abducted a loved one and demand a ransom, mostly via wire transfer. But no one has been kidnapped.

These scammers have learned all that they needed to know from monitoring social media accounts, and sometimes even hacking into cell phones, researching if this person would be a good target.  Or sometimes, the scammers even just cold call until they get a victim. All the scammer has to do from that point is be convincing: some use the child’s name and information they’ve gleaned from social media, sometimes they don’t use a name at all. “I’ve got your daughter” or “we have your son” is enough to strike fear in a parent.

Some scammers go to lengths to have someone in the background screaming or pretending to be in distress to help “sell” the scam. Chinese families have been targeted since many young Chinese students travel abroad for educations. Scammers assume these families have the finances to cover the ransom. American families from affluent cities were initially targeted, but now anyone who answers the phone will do.

3 Clues That Can Tip You Off That It Might Be a Virtual Kidnapping

  • Calls don’t come from the victim’s phone.
  • The caller tries to keep you on the line and keep you from contacting the victim.
  • Demand payment via wire transfer.

What Should You Do?

  • If you’re certain this is a scam (i.e. the victim is with you), just hang up.
  • While you’re on the line, try to contact the victim.
  • Don’t call out the victim’s name (in case it’s a cold call).
  • If you do continue to talk, slow the situation down: ask to talk to the victim, ask for proof that the victim is OK.
  • Buy time: ask to repeat the request, say that you are writing it down. Tell them it will take some time to get together.
  • Ask to talk to the victim: if you can, ask questions only the victim would know (a pet’s name, color of their bedroom).
  • If the victim speaks, listen carefully and make sure.
  • Ask to be called back on the victim’s phone.
  • Tell the scammer you can’t wire the money — ask for a drop off point.

If you aren’t certain that this is a scam, call 911. But never send money.




Bernadette Vielhaber

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