Every parent’s worst nightmare is being materialized in California, as NBC News reported that the FBI is investigating cases of "virtual kidnapping" call scams. The scammers are now targeting wealthy Southern Californians with demands of thousands of dollars in exchange for the return of children who the callers falsely claim were kidnapped. Fortunately, the scam is on the FBI's radar, but here's what parents need to know about the concerning reports.
Initially, the scammers were making calls in Spanish targeting immigrant families in the United States, according to Fox 35, but law enforcement have said the suspects are evolving in their methods. Now, they are speaking English to target high-end communities including Beverley Hills and Laguna Beach, according to NBC News. Police in Laguna Beach told CBS2 that the scammers targeted two residents within a 24-hour window between March 7 and March 8.
One target paid $5,000 after he received a call from a man claiming he had kidnapped the victim’s daughter and would kill her unless he received ransom money, as NBC News reported. The target was ordered by the suspect to remain on the phone throughout the transaction and even heard a woman’s screams during the call, according to CBS2. NBC News reported that the father received a call from his daughter, who was safe and sound in Laguna Beach, just as he was completing the transaction.
Another case involved a mother who received a call with a voice on the other end that sounded similar to her daughter’s, according to ABC News. “She said, 'Mom they took me in a van. I don't know where I am.' I was speechless,” Kathie Gross, the mother, told NBC News. Gross later found her daughter still safe at school, ABC News reported.
In both cases, according to ABC News, parents were ordered to withdraw several thousand dollars and go to a location in Costa Mesa, California from where they were told to wire the money to a bank account traced back to Mexico.
In an FBI media alert issued late last year, law enforcement advised anyone who received similar calls to be wary. “Unlike traditional abductions, virtual kidnappers have not actually kidnapped anyone,” the alert advised. “Instead, through deceptions and threats, they coerce victims to pay a quick ransom before the scheme falls apart.”
On Tuesday, the FBI in Los Angeles wrote on Twitter: "The FBI & police have seen an uptick in virtual kidnap hoaxes reported by victims, some of whom sent money overseas. If you receive a call claiming your child was kidnapped with a demand for wired cash, verify your child's location & call 911 or the FBI."
According to the FBI, the perpetrators use social media to collect information about people’s loved ones. In the same media alert from 2018, the agency released a list of suggested courses of action if you receive on of these phone calls:
- In most cases, the best option is to hang up the phone
- If you are concerned about a loved one’s safety, attempt to contact the alleged kidnapping victim through phone, text, or social media and ask that they call you back from their cellphone.
- If you speak to the caller, do not share information about your loved one. They may use this information against you.
- Slow down the situation by requesting to speak to your family member or asking the caller to repeat their request as you write down their demand
- Listen closely if you hear the voice of the alleged kidnapping victim, as it is often someone else posing as your loved one
- Do not agree to pay a ransom amount, either by wire or in person
- Contact your nearest FBI office or local law enforcement immediately
As law enforcement continues to investigate these troubling scams, parents should remain wary of any shady calls in the meantime.