Tears were dripping down her cheeks, the pain in her eyes intense. I could tell that she was in shock; as a parent myself, the thought of receiving a call like that is simply unimaginable. “I could hear a child screaming in the background,” she told me, her voice still trembling. “It’s every parent’s worst nightmare, and for a moment, I thought it was coming true.”
If you’ve read this blog before, you’ll know that I talk a lot about online scams and how you can avoid them. But the other day, I was in an elevator with a lady who had just become a victim of one of the most horrific scams around—and it’s happening to hundreds of people every day.
To protect her privacy, the lady I met in the elevator asked that I not reveal her real name. So, for the purpose of this article, let’s just call her Sarah.
Child virtual kidnapping scam
“I’ve had an awful day,” said Sarah, out of the blue. I’d never met her before but she worked in the same building complex. I asked her what was wrong. I felt like she needed to talk to someone. She was visibly shaking.
“I received a phone call a few minutes ago from a guy saying he had kidnapped my child,” she recalled. “He started shouting, telling me he had a gun to her head. He said that if I didn’t pay him money right now he was going to shoot her.”
It was at this point that the tears started.
“It was all so hectic,” she sobbed. “There was another guy in the background screaming and also a child shouting ‘please stop, please.’ I couldn’t believe what was happening.”
Sarah then told me that the person on the phone knew her daughter’s name and where she went to school. “This made me sick, like physically nauseous,” she continued. “He was saying, we have Avery. We are holding her hostage. You need to pay the ransom now or we are going to cut off her fingers. Then, I will shoot her.”
Sarah took a deep breath and composed herself.
“At the same time,” she said, “I sort of knew that this couldn’t be true. For one, it didn’t sound anything like my daughter. And number two, my husband had called about an hour or so ago to tell me he’d picked her up from school and that they were now home. So it just didn’t add up.”
Still, it didn’t make receiving the call any easier.
Sarah did the right thing: She hung up the phone, called her husband to verify her little girl was indeed OK, and then called the police. And as law enforcement told her, this virtual kidnapping scam is becoming all-too-common, and people around the country are falling for it.
But how did they know her child’s name and where she went to school?
I asked Sarah if her social media accounts are set to private. She wasn’t sure, but after checking, determined that her Facebook account was public.
“Do you post any info like your child’s name on Facebook?” I asked. She, like many of us, confirmed that she did.
I’ve mentioned in posts numerous times about how we need to be careful about what we post online. Those details can be used against us. However, it’s not often you see the effects in person. It brought it home, in the most real of ways, just how vulnerable we all are.
It was at this point that I told Sarah how sorry I was and that I couldn’t imagine how she must be feeling. I told her to go home and give her daughter an extra-large hug. I then drove home myself and gave my children a bear-sized squeeze that almost crushed them.
Virtual kidnapping: It could happen to you
I’d heard about these virtual kidnapping scams before, but it was shocking to witness the graphic details moments after it had occurred. I told everyone I knew, in the hope that it may help if the same happens to them; if you’ve heard that these scams exist, you’ll be better prepared to mentally deal with it—and, of course, not be tempted to wire any money.
A couple of days later, I saw a post show up on my Facebook feed. It was the Livermore Police Department, issuing a warning to citizens about this very scam.
“These scammers will generally call you and demand ransom in exchange for your loved one’s release and tell you to wire the money for the ransom payment,” the post said. “When scammers call victims, they direct the person to purchase green dot gift cards or direct them to transfer money via a wire transfer service. According to the FBI, scammers ask for wire transfers because the wire transfers are extremely difficult to trace. In addition, scammers will insist that the victims stay on the line until the wire transfer is complete.”
The post then went on to provide further details about what happens in a virtual kidnapping scam, and what you should do if you become a victim:
- These scammers will often have pre-recorded messages of individuals yelling or screaming in the background as they talk on the phone.
- The scammers will tell you to withdraw funds from your account and to either purchase gift cards, green dot pre-paid cards, or complete a wire transfer.
- Most of these scammers will tell you to stay on the phone and not call the police or something will happen to your family member(s).
- Scammers will ask you to honk your horn while you are in your vehicle so they can hear you are still in the car.
- When these scammers call, the numbers will usually come up as being from out of the country or foreign.
- Recently, these scammers have been able to spoof a phone number you may recognize.
- These virtual scammers are becoming more sophisticated. They have been using technology and sophisticated methods to dupe people into thinking that their loved ones have been kidnapped.
Things to consider:
- Know the vast majority of these are completely fake.
- Call your family members to make sure they are ok and confirm they are not in distress.
- Notify your local police department immediately and report the incident to the FBI.
Virtual kidnapping scams are happening on a daily basis. Kathie Gross, a California mother, became a recent victim and called it the “most terrifying experience” of her life.
In her case, the scammers pretended to have her 12-year-old daughter locked in the trunk. Again, there was a young girl screaming in the background. Gross did not pay the ransom and eventually reached her daughter at school. But she told the Orange County Register that she doesn’t feel safe anymore and has changed all her social media passwords.
A father from San Diego, however, wasn’t so lucky. He told his local news station that he wired $10,000 to Mexico when he received a virtual kidnapping call. Understandably, he panicked and did exactly what the people on the phone told him. Thankfully, he later learned that his daughter was safe—but his money was long gone.
I’m hoping that in telling Sarah’s story, a tale that randomly appeared in my elevator one Thursday afternoon, it may help someone who receives such a phone call. The message Sarah wanted to share: Don’t panic, know that this is almost certainly a scam, do not pay the ransom, and hang up and call your loved one to make sure that they’re safe.
Even with that knowledge, Sarah was no less shaken up: “It’ll take me a while to get over this,” she sobbed. “You just never think it will happen to you.”
Looking for ways to protect your child online. Consider Hotspot Shield, a free internet security app that encrypts your data to protect you from hackers. By making your internet activities anonymous, you’ll have the peace of mind in knowing that cybercriminals cannot track your family’s every online move.