Virtual Kidnapping Scam

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Provided by Prince William County Police Department

The telephone scam known as “Virtual Kidnapping” is going around again, and it has moved to the use of social media as well. This means scammers will try to contact you via social media and attempt to convince you that your family member has been kidnapped. This same scam has been done in the past by calling individuals and trying to extort money by claiming that a family member has been taken hostage.

In the scheme, individuals claiming to have kidnapped a family member. While no actual kidnapping has taken place, the callers often use co-conspirators to convince their victims of the legitimacy of the threat. For example, a caller might attempt to convince a victim that his daughter was kidnapped by having a young female scream for help in the background during the call. The stated reason they are holding the alleged victim varies, but some of the most prominent scams involve car accidents, drug debts, gang assaults, or persons being smuggled across the border. In another example, a caller may attempt to convince a victim that her husband or son was in a car accident with a gang member. The individual calling pretends to be a friend or relative of the gang member. This person tells the victim that their family member is seriously injured and needs to go to the hospital, but that their friend will not allow them to go the hospital until he gets paid for the damages done to his vehicle Victim telephone numbers appear to be dialed at random.

Callers typically provide the victim with specific instructions to ensure safe return of the allegedly kidnapped individual. In some cases, these instructions involve demands of a ransom payment. Callers are ordered to stay on the phone until the money is wired, often to a third party in Puerto Rico. Most schemes use various techniques to instill a sense of fear, panic, and urgency in an effort to rush the victim into making a very hasty decision. Instructions usually require that the ransom is paid immediately— typically by wire transfer. Typically, once a payment is made, the alleged kidnappers claim the money was not received and demand that victims wire additional money.

To avoid becoming a victim of this scheme, look for the following possible indicators:

  • Incoming calls come from an outside area code with area codes (787), (939) and (856)
  • 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

If you receive a phone call from someone who demands payment of a ransom for a kidnapped victim, the following should be considered:

  • Attempt to contact the alleged kidnap victim through a call, text or through social media.
  • Try to slow the situation down. Request to speak to the victim directly. Ask, “How do I know my loved one is okay?”
  • If they don’t let you speak to the victim, ask them to describe the victim or describe the vehicle they drive, if applicable.
  • Listen carefully to the voice of the kidnapped victim if they speak.
  • Attempt to call, text, or contact the victim via social media. Request that the victim call back from his or her cell phone.
  • While staying on the line with alleged kidnappers, try to call the alleged kidnap victim from another phone.
  • To buy time, repeat the caller’s request and tell them you are writing down the demand, or tell the caller you need time to get things moving.
  •  Don’t directly challenge or argue with the caller. Keep your voice low and steady.
  • Request the kidnapped victim call back from his/her cell phone.

The scammers are skimming information about victims and their families by searching through social media. It is important to monitor what is posted online and to make sure you have the proper privacy settings in place. Should you be traveling avoid sharing your location on social media and be on high alert during especially during time of such a spring break and major holidays.

If you believe you are the victim of this scam, call our Communications Bureau at 703 792 6500 to report it. If you believe your family member is victim of an actual kidnapping, call 911 immediately.

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