Phone scammers are pretending to kidnap rich people's kids and trying to get them to pay ransoms

NBC News/YouTubeKathy Gross, a victim of the virtual kidnapping scam, interviewed by NBC News.
  • Scammers are running a “virtual kidnapping” scheme where they demand ransoms from parents without actually taking their kids.
  • The scammers will attempt to impersonate the child’s voice, and tend to target wealthy people.
  • The FBI believes that the scam originates in Mexico, where a different version of the scheme circulated years ago.

Some parents are falling prey to what police are calling a “virtual kidnapping” scam, where a caller demands a ransom for children they haven’t actually kidnapped, California police told NBC News.

Laguna Beach is investigating two such incidents that took place in March. Both times, parents received calls from people who said their child was kidnapped and would only be released if they paid around $US5,000 in ransom money.

On one occasion, police stopped the parents before any payment was made. In another, a father made part of the payment before his daughter called.

“At about 6:30 p.m., as the victim was completing the last transaction, he received a call from his daughter who was fine in Laguna Beach,” a Laguna Police officer told the Associated Press.

The FBI believes the scam originates in Mexico, the source of the calls and destination site for the money, a spokesperson told NBC News. The callers tend to target the wealthy, and will sometimes put someone on the phone who can impersonate the child’s voice.

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Versions of the scam have persisted since at least before 2014, when the FBI warned people about it on the bureau’s podcast. Then, the scammers often targeted Americans staying in Mexican hotels.

“Callers impersonate themselves as cartel members or corrupt police officers who claim they have kidnapped a loved one and demand a ransom,” podcast host Mollie Halpern said. “Look for the warning signs … they will never call from the victim’s phone. They’re not with your loved one, and the ‘victim’ is not kidnapped.”

If you are the victim of the scam, authorities recommend avoiding giving any personal information, not saying your loved one’s name, and calling your local police department as soon as possible.

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