Virtual Kidnapping

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You get a call late at night and the caller ID says it is from your grandchild. It’s frequently late at night so they can catch you when you are half asleep and groggy. You don’t recognize the voice though. The voice is that of an agitated, high-strung man shrieking ultimatums for money and making threats of violence. He appears to have both your grandchild and their phone. The “kidnapper” demands money or they tell you your family member will die. This is a scam.

In the old days, before cell phones or the internet the scammers used to call on the phone and say they were your grandchild and they had been arrested. They would then say they needed you to send bail money so they could get out of jail. But technology has changed things.

The person on the other end of the line is ranting and raving the whole time. They say they are going to kill your grandchild unless you pay a ransom fast. A wave of disbelief washes over you. You know your grandchild is away at school, attending college in another state. Could something have happened? He demands that you go and get a money gram to send to them or you will never see your grandchild again.

You might not notice but they won’t use your grandchild’s name. Not only are they trying to extort money from you but they are on a fishing trip to get the name so they will sound more legitimate.

The FBI calls this crime “virtual kidnapping.” Hackers will gain access to someone’s cell phone contact list and then use the phone number masking technology called “spoofing”.  With caller ID spoofing, people can make it seem like their phone calls are coming from whatever phone number they want, even your grandchild’s phone.

“This is the next level,” said FBI Special Agent Doug Kasper. “This is a high pressure call that has instant impact. The ability to spoof phone numbers is what makes it so instantly scary.”

Kasper said this scam is the most recent advancement in phone and social networking scams being perpetrated by criminals. Kasper said the FBI is continually shutting down these lawbreakers in the United States but they keep popping up elsewhere.

“They grow more sophisticated all the time, but on our side is that the consumers are also getting more sophisticated in recognizing them,” he said. “The key for the victims is to slow things down, control their emotions.”

The FBI doesn’t have national statistics on virtual kidnapping because most victims report the crime to just the local police or don’t report it at all. The FBI thinks this scam is still widespread so they are asking people to report these calls.

The scammers probably dial lots of possible victims every day hopeful to get success on at least one. They most likely keep calling until they come across one person that can’t reach their loved ones and panics. The deception is probably a “high volume” scam that succeeds often enough that it is profitable for the scammers.

Here is how to avoid falling victim to a virtual kidnapping. Ask them if you can talk to “Bill” and beg them not to hurt Bill, knowing full well you are not related to anyone named Bill. When they say you can’t talk to Bill you will know they aren’t telling the truth. Catching them in a lie early on will ease your mind and give you the advantage.

Try to call the alleged victim on another phone or utilize some other method like texting or even instant messaging to contact the person who has supposedly been kidnapped. If you are traveling with the purported kidnapping victim but you are not with the person right then, you might want to call the hotel where they are staying and ask them to perform a “Welfare Check” if you think they might be in their room.

Ask for proof from the supposed kidnapper that they have possession of the purported victim. Ask for a current photograph or video of the person that they allegedly kidnapped. Most cell phones have a camera that the kidnapper could use to verify if this is a scam or not. Proof of possession can help differentiate between actual kidnappings and virtual kidnappings.

Check the caller ID to see if the caller is dialing from a location that is where the victim was last known to be. If the scammer is not using the supposed victim’s phone, you can challenge the person calling to call you back from this cellphone. Keep in mind though that the phone number may be spoofed.

Report to the FBI or local law enforcement without delay and inform them of any virtual kidnapping attempt and provide them with as much evidence as you can. This might include the phone number that the call came from if you still have it. You should also file a statement with the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center at www.ic3.gov.

Norb is a freelance journalist from Lockport.

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