Virtual Kidnapping Scams – What They Are and How to Avoid Them

Kyle Schurman
Writer
Dolores Bernal
Editor
February 20, 2024
Front view young female in red shirt suffers from physical violence on the cream floor female cloth photo

Imagine this:

You’re going about your day, minding your own business, when suddenly your phone rings. As you pick it up, a rush of anxiety surges through your veins, for it’s the voice of someone dear to you, trembling with panic. 

Instantly, your skin prickles, and a chilling sense of unease washes over you. But what comes next is beyond comprehension. In a desperate, frantic tone, your loved one’s voice pierces the air, revealing a heart-wrenching truth—they’re caught in the clutches of a ruthless kidnapper. Their desperate plea for ransom money strikes you like a bolt of lightning, causing your fear to skyrocket to unimaginable heights.

Unfortunately, when you are in a state of panic, you may not think clearly about what you hear. You might miss clues that tell you the call is not real. You may not think about calling your loved one directly to see if they’re okay and to verify the story.

Instead, you may send the requested money in a rush. Because this almost certainly is a virtual kidnapping scam, your money is gone the second you press the send button.

The truth is that scammers are becoming highly sophisticated at pulling off virtual kidnapping scams. The rise of artificial intelligence (AI) software is enhancing the realism of the call.

So, how can you feel confident that the call you are receiving about a kidnapping is fake? There are a few clues you can use to spot the scam and ensure your loved one is safe and sound. We’ll discuss the signs to watch.

What Is a Fake or Virtual Kidnapping Scam?

silhouette photo of person holding smartphone

Source: Giles Lambert

In a fake or virtual kidnapping scam, the scammer will send you a text message or call you. The scammer may use technology to make it appear as though the communication is coming from your loved one’s phone, enhancing the realism of the situation.

Additionally, the scammer may use AI technology to try to simulate your loved one’s voice. Even if the simulated voice is not a perfect match, the scammer hopes that you’ll believe the voice is close enough to be real in your panicked state.

The scammer may have the fake caller sob or scream to enhance your dread and fear. By playing on your emotions, the criminal hopes you’ll quickly give in to the demands.

The scammer then instructs you to send money in an untraceable way to buy the freedom of your loved one. You also are told not to contact law enforcement.

Why Virtual Kidnapping Schemes Sometimes Work?

Although you can tell yourself that you won’t respond in a panic to a fake kidnapping call, if you ever actually receive a phone call like this, staying calm is extremely challenging.

Criminals don’t make it easy for you to relax in the moment, either. They force you to make fast decisions. They also use a few techniques to make the virtual kidnapping scheme feel real to you.

1. Ramping up the emotions

The criminal running the scam is counting on the victim to react emotionally rather than rationally

This is why the scammer tries to include yelling or crying as part of the phone call, ramping up the emotions. It’s also why the fake kidnapper demands that you send payment as quickly as possible. The criminal won’t give you time to think about the circumstances and to find the holes in the story.

2. Using personal information makes the scam more believable

Sometimes, the fake phone call will include information that you’re sure only your loved one would know. The scammer tries to add just enough personal information to make the phony kidnapping seem believable at the moment but not enough that you can see through the lies.

It’s very likely that the criminal simply found some of this personal information on social media posts.

3. Targeting grandparents and older relatives

It’s easier to pull off this scam by targeting older people. A grandparent who may not hear very well is easier to fool with a fake voice that doesn’t perfectly match the grandchild’s voice. 

A grandparent also may be less likely to know the current whereabouts of the grandchild. When the fake kidnapper calls, a parent may know the child is at work. The parent can quickly check with the child to see if they’re okay. A grandparent likely wouldn’t know the grandchild’s schedule.

Targeting seniors in all kinds of scams is a common practice for criminals, as seniors may be less savvy about how technology can trick them.

4. Keeping you on the phone

The fake kidnapper often will purposefully try to keep you on the phone. The kidnapper may threaten your loved one if you hang up the phone.

Of course, scammers do this because if you leave the fake kidnapping call to actually contact your loved one, you’ll almost certainly discover that your loved one is fine.

If someone else is home with you, have that person reach out to your loved one separately to make sure they’re okay.

How Many Actual Kidnappings With Ransom Requests Happen Each Year?

person wearing silver ring and silver ring

Source: Jose P. Ortiz

Kidnappings of people under the age of 21 by strangers are actually pretty rare, according to FBI data. During the decade of the 2010s, the FBI estimates about 350 people annually fit these kidnapping criteria. 

Although hundreds of thousands of people under age 21 are reported as missing each year, nearly all of them are considered runaways rather than kidnappings by strangers. Some also may be kidnapped by an estranged spouse. No one would request a ransom for a runaway or when a parent takes the kids.

When thinking about a potential virtual kidnapping scam, it’s important to point out the rarity of actual kidnappings of children by strangers – which the FBI’s statistics say happens less than once per day across the United States. 

The FBI does not track the number of virtual kidnapping extortion scams, but it does release warnings about these scams to the public regularly, emphasizing their frequency. 

Increasing Sophistication of Virtual Kidnapping Scammers

Ransomware Cyber Crime Malware

Source: TheDigitalArtist

AI technology is one of the newest tools criminals use when running virtual kidnapping schemes. AI is highly sophisticated software that can “learn,” meaning it can change its programming and future outcomes based on what happened in past outcomes. True AI would be able to almost mimic human thinking and reasoning.

Today’s AI isn’t quite as sophisticated as what AI could be in the future. However, it can process data at an incredible rate of speed, which enhances the ability of scammers to create realistic audio clips of their fake victims.

1. Simulating your loved one’s phone

Scammers can use software to make the fake kidnapping call appear as though it is coming from your loved one’s phone. 

This technology makes it almost a certainty that you will answer the call. If the call was coming from an unknown number, many people would ignore it, so this caller ID spoof is a key part of the scam.

Caller ID simulations have been around quite a bit longer than AI voice simulations.

2. Using AI to simulate your loved one’s voice

When calling you with a virtual kidnapping scheme in the past, the criminal might try to make you believe your loved one is on the phone with a muffled cry for help or a scream. The criminal would hope that you become so panicked that you don’t wonder whether the snippet of the voice matches your loved one.

With AI, though, the scammer can simulate the voice of your loved one. This makes the kidnapping call appear far more real.

AI only needs a sample of audio from your loved one, which may be available on social media, on a TikTok video, or in a podcast. The software can then create a surprisingly realistic-sounding audio clip based on the sample. A longer sample usually yields a more realistic fake audio clip.

With readily available software, creating a fake audio clip only takes a few minutes. The criminal gives the AI the text to “read” in the fake audio clip, and the software creates it in very little time.

4. Providing important details

The criminal may even choose to include some personal information about you or your loved one to enhance the realistic feel of the call. Scammers often can pull this information from social media feeds, greatly simplifying the process.

If the scammer sees on social media that a college student is planning a spring break trip, this might be a perfect opportunity to spring a virtual kidnapping scheme. The parents or grandparents might know the child is traveling, but they may not know all of the details of the trip. This uncertainty plays into the criminal’s ability to make the scam seem more convincing.

Ultimately, the criminal puts a lot of effort and time into trying to make the scam seem as realistic and convincing as possible. The introduction of AI software helps to make a fake abduction a highly sophisticated scam

5. Spotting a fake AI voice

An AI-cloned voice is frighteningly accurate and realistic … and AI technology is only going to improve in the future

A McAfee report says 77% of people who already experienced this type of scam lost money, usually several thousand dollars each. Even worse, AI may be able to create a realistic video that makes it appear your loved one is tied up in a chair, ramping up your emotional response.

The future possibilities regarding using AI in this way are terrifying. However, there are a few ways to spot a potential fake audio clip involving AI under current technology. 

Although it can be tough when you are feeling a bit of panic, try to pay attention to the inflection of the voice you are hearing. Does it match your loved one’s mannerisms? Is the caller using words that your loved one would not use? 

Ultimately, you should call law enforcement after receiving the kidnapping call. Even if you believe the call is fake, you should give officers as much information as you can. The kidnappers will tell you not to call the police, but you should always report the situation.

How You Can Protect Yourself and Your Loved Ones From Virtual Kidnapping Schemes?

As AI virtual kidnapping scams become increasingly sophisticated, you must be ready to protect yourself. You may be able to take a few steps to force the kidnapper to provide proof of the kidnapping if you ever find yourself as the target of one of these extortion phone calls.

Granted, some victims who receive these calls simply don’t want to take any chances. They are willing to pay whatever ransom is requested, even though the chances of the situation being real are incredibly small. They don’t want to risk angering the kidnappers by deploying some countermeasures, just in case the situation is real.

But if you want to fight back against these types of scammers, some of the following ideas can help you.

1. Use a code word

Set up a family code word with your loved ones the next time all of you are gathered together. If you or your loved ones are ever in a dangerous situation that requires a phone call for help, you should share the code word during the call so your family members know the call is legitimate.

If you receive a fake kidnapping phone call, tell the kidnappers you cannot respond to their demands until you hear your loved one say the code word. Chances are the criminals will shout out some more threats, trying to intimidate you. However, if they cannot produce the code word, you can feel confident the call is a fake. 

Never share the code word with anyone outside of the family. And don’t make the code word something that a scammer might be able to guess from you or your loved one’s social media profiles.

2. Ask for help from someone nearby

If someone else is in the room with you, discretely ask them to call or text your loved one’s phone while you remain on the phone with the fake kidnappers. If your loved one answers, you know they are safe, and you are talking to a scammer.

3. Hang up and redial

If you receive this type of call, act like you have a bad connection. Admittedly, this can be difficult in the moment, especially when the possibility of a loved one being in danger is happening.

Then hang up the phone, acting as if you lost the signal. Immediately dial back your loved one’s phone. Because the chances are high that the kidnapping call is fake, your loved one probably will pick up the phone, and everything will be fine.

Remember, even though the caller ID on your phone may indicate that the call is coming from your loved one’s phone, criminals can use spoofing software that affects the accuracy of the caller ID system.

4. Ask to speak to your loved one

We’ve all seen movies and TV shows where the person who receives the kidnapping call demands to be able to speak to their loved one to ensure they’re okay. You can try to thwart a virtual kidnapping scheme in this same way.

If the criminals are using AI software to spoof your loved one’s voice, they won’t let you speak to your loved one because they won’t have this fake audio clip queued up.  

Just continue to insist that you cannot pay the ransom until you speak to your loved one and have assurances that they’re okay. 

5. Be careful what you share on social media

If you or your loved one constantly post publicly on social media about trips you’re taking, scammers can use this information in a virtual kidnapping scheme. If the parents or grandparents know that the child will be out of town, it can make the abduction call seem more realistic.

Additionally, scammers can use social media profiles to obtain some personal information about you or your loved ones that they can use to make the situation seem more convincing.

One helpful tip is to set your social media accounts and profiles to private. Only allow those who you know to see your posts. Admittedly, this can be a difficult process for teens and young adults, so you may have to come up with a compromise.

6. Communication and more communication

The more you know about your loved one’s plans, the better job you can do to spot and thwart fake abduction scams. Your child certainly doesn’t have to check in with you every time a trip to the store is in the cards, but try to communicate about longer trips.

Let grandparents know about longer trips, too. Scammers love targeting seniors regarding their grandchildren. Regular communication can give grandparents the information they need to avoid falling for the scam, though.

Be Proactive About Protecting Yourself and Your Family From Virtual Kidnapping Scams

Sometimes, a criminal will initiate a virtual kidnapping scam either while in the process of, or directly after stealing your identity or your loved one’s identity. When criminals have access to your personal information, they can make the scam seem far more realistic.

Taking proactive steps to protect your personal information from identity theft may reduce your chance of falling victim to a virtual kidnapping scam.

If you subscribe to one of the best identity theft protection services, you can receive a heads-up about oddities related to your personal information. Such oddities could indicate an attempt at identity theft.

With the alert about the potential breach of your personal information, you can then take steps to protect yourself before the scammer can take advantage of it.

When scammers have tools like AI on their side, it makes protecting yourself much more challenging. Using common sense and making use of your own tools, like ID theft protection services, can help you level the playing field against scammers trying to run virtual kidnappings.

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