What is Virtual Kidnapping in the United States

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Everyone is familiar with phone scams, dating scams, and even email scams. What you may not have heard of is one of the newer scams, virtual kidnapping. This is a horrible scam not only because it requires a great deal of forethought and planning by the perpetrator but also because it’s a direct attack on the people they love.

It’s believed that the idea of virtual kidnapping originated in Mexican prisons. The way many think this heinous scam started is that prisoners used smuggled phones to call the families of other prisoners and threatened to either kill or seriously injure their “victim” if the person didn’t pay some sort of ransom. It’s likely that the “intended target” was in on the scam. Not only weren’t they in danger, but they also received a portion of the ransom money.

Since those early days, virtual kidnappings have started to happen in other parts of the world, primarily in Spain, though there have been reports of such kidnappings in the United States. The way these work is a person receives a call or video from someone they love dearly. The person is usually in distress and swears that their life is in danger and that their loved one must pay a specific amount of money in order to secure their release.

It’s unclear how many family members fall for this scheme, partly because some genuinely believe that their loved one was kidnapped and the ransom money worked and partly because police are rarely contacted.

While virtual kidnapping hasn’t gotten much media attention in the United States, we do know that they happen. Not only has a branch of the FBI in Chicago released a statement designed to educate potential victims about virtual kidnappings, but there have been known cases of the scams in California.

In 2018, police became involved in two different cases of suspected virtual kidnappings in Laguna Beach. Both cases involved a child who told their parents that they had been kidnapped and demanded ransom money. In some of these cases, an actual family member is involved in the scam. In other instances, they haven’t been.

If you are contacted by someone who claims to have abducted a loved one, you’re advised to attempt to slow the situation down. One method for doing this is by asking to speak directly to your loved one. This allows you to confirm that part of the story.

In March 2022, the FBI released some tips to help a person identify if they are dealing with a virtual kidnapping situation. According to the FBI, signs of virtual kidnappings include the following:

  • The alleged kidnappers don’t appear to be in a hurry to get off the phone
  • The kidnappers aren’t able to provide answers that are specific to the alleged victim

The demand that the ransom be delivered via a wire service and usually request that small amounts of the ransom be sent to a variety of accounts.

If you get a call from someone who is claiming to have kidnapped one of your loved ones, you should take a little time to make sure that you’re loved one is, in fact, missing. Call their employment, school, caretaker, etc., to learn if they are missing and potentially in danger.

If a person is caught in the middle of a virtual kidnapping scam, they will be charged with extortion.