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By September 8, 2021October 30th, 2023Scams Guides4 min read
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Virtual Kidnapping: A Frightening Scam with a New Twist

FBI offers ways to recognize this scheme
You answer a call from your daughter’s number. A woman can be heard screaming for help in the background. You yell out your daughter’s name. A forceful voice repeats the name and says she has been kidnapped, and if you don’t pay, she will be killed. A terrifying panic sets in. But according to the FBI, the threat is more than likely fake.

U.S. law enforcement agencies have been dealing with virtual kidnapping schemes for more than 20 years, but the problem is spreading, helped by new technology.

Technology aided extortion
Hackers obtain mobile phone contact lists, then use “spoofing,” technology to disguise an incoming call to appear as if it is coming from the kidnapping victim’s phone. One might answer a call thinking it is coming from their child or grandchild, when it is actually from an extortionist.

Why the scam is effective
In addition to using a familiar number, scammers use high pressure tactics to get their targets to wire money immediately.

“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.”

Scammers rapidly dial dozens of potential victims in one day hoping for one or more to take the bait. A very short period of time to pay up is given, so the target is unaware there is no kidnap victim. The time pressure leaves little time to verify a story.

Kasper said the FBI works domestically to shut down networks and their money launderers, but overseas phone and social networking schemes operated by criminal networks is evolving at a rapid pace. He said the key to curbing the scam, is consumer awareness.

How to recognize a scam
The FBI offers this advice if you think you are a victim of a virtual kidnapping scam:

  • Try to get off the phone or use another means of contacting the family member who purportedly has been kidnapped.
  • If you are traveling with the purported kidnapping victim but not physically with the person at the time, conduct a welfare check at the person’s residence or hotel.
  • While engaging the caller on the phone, have someone call the purported kidnapping victim on a separate phone.
  • Ask for “proof of life” and “proof of possession” and request a current photograph of the person. “Proof of possession” can help distinguish actual kidnappings for ransom from virtual kidnappings.
  • If the scammer isn’t using the purported victim’s spoofed phone number, check the caller ID to see whether the caller is dialing from an out-of-state area code that is different from the purported victim’s last known location. Then challenge the caller to dial from a number within the purported victim’s area code and challenge the caller to call from the purported victim’s smartphone.

Even if you are not taken in, contact the FBI or local law enforcement immediately to report the attempted virtual kidnapping and provide as much information as you can, including the phone number if you have it. Also file a report with the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center at

Try to stay calm. Virtual kidnapping is just one of many scams you might fall victim to. If you can keep your emotions in check, reasoning and taking logical steps will often separate real threats from fake ones.