Picture this: Your phone rings. The caller ID flashes the name and picture of a close family member. You answer expecting a hello from your parent or child and instead are verbally accosted by a man yelling that he has your loved one, and if you don't follow his exact demands, he will kill his captive.
It's like a scene out of the Liam Neeson movie, “Taken,” except this is real life. Your mind will race and you'll panick. And that is exactly what the kidnapper is counting on. In this situation, you won't get your relative back because he or she was never taken. It's a hoax called virtual kidnapping, and it's growing in popularity and sophistication.
Virtual kidnappers use “spoofing” to disguise phone numbers as those of your loved ones. They steal contact lists and stalk social media profiles to better trick their targets.
According to an NBC article, private investigator Mark Walker, and his son, Eli, of Indiana, were two such targets. One kidnapper told Mark he had his daughter, while another kidnapper called Eli and said he had his father.
The virtual kidnapping con attempts to keep the targets panicked and on the phone, so that they will be tricked into wiring money.
In the case of Mark and Eli, the Walker men did exactly what the FBI advises. They contacted loved ones who verified that daughter and father were not in harm's way.
According to the FBI, the key is to stay calm and stay on the phone with the kidnappers while checking on family, either by text or by having someone else call them. The FBI also advises verification. Ask for an immediate photo, or ask questions that could not be answered through an internet search.
Also, consider the ransom. Virtual kidnappers often request sums of $1,000 to $2,000 because many people are able to deliver these ransoms quickly. If the kidnapper cannot produce the verification or is not demanding a large amount, you're probably dealing with a scam artist.
Of course, whether the demand is real or faux, report all threats to law enforcement.
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