According to police, a mother in Wyckoff, New Jersey, recently received a terrifying phone call during which the caller demanded $10,000 for the safe return of the woman’s 14-year-old daughter – while a girl could be heard screaming in the background.
The mother was told to go to the bank and withdraw cash, and to stay on the phone for instructions as to how to transfer the money to the kidnappers. Luckily, on the way to the bank, the mother was able to flag down a police officer whom she happened to see; the officer was able to contact the girl’s school, and, after instituting a “lock down,” determine that the daughter was, in fact, safe. As soon as the policeman picked up the phone, the caller disconnected, never to be heard from again.
Bogus reports of kidnapping accompanied by demands for real money in change for the safe return of a family member or friend are not a new phenomenon; I discussed the growth of so called “virtual kidnapping” scams with then-CNBC reporter, Dina Gusovsky, in 2015, at which time such activities primarily targeted the Spanish-speaking community in the United States. Since then, we have seen plenty of scammers continue to target Latinos, likely hoping to find victims who are afraid to involve police due to immigration-status concerns. Virtual kidnapping scams seem to have increased after President Trump entered office – likely because scammers targeting demographics with substantial undocumented populations are aware that increased enforcement of immigration law translates into an increased chance of people paying ransoms without contacting the authorities for any form assistance.
The call in Wyckoff, however, serves as a warning that virtual kidnapping scams may be spreading both demographically and in terms of demands. While the Wyckoff virtual kidnapping call is believed to have emanated from Mexico, less than 5% of Wyckoff’s population is of Latino origin. And the amount demanded – $10,000 – is many times higher than the amount criminals have typically stolen through such scams in the past; it is possible that criminals were aware that Wyckoff’s population is relatively wealthy compared with those of most places in the USA, and targeted the area accordingly.
How can you protect yourself against virtual kidnappings?
- Do not share flight or cruise information on social media – Besides potentially putting your home and office at increased risk of burglaries, sharing this information helps criminals know when you are likely to be unreachable, and helps them craft virtual kidnapping attacks. For the same reason, do not share your children’s schedules on social media. Remember, one of the most important factors in the success of a virtual kidnapping scam is the imnability of the person being scammed to quickly communicate with the “kidnapped” person. (For more tips on how to safely use social media when traveling, see the article Five Tips to Stay Safe on Social Media While Traveling.)
- If you do not already have one, install a messaging app that allows you to communicate with both your loved ones and law enforcement without disconnecting a voice call in progress.
- Make sure you know how to send messages without anyone on the phone hearing you doing so. For many people their default phone configuration allows this.
- Do not answer voice calls from unknown numbers, especially from international numbers. Many virtual kidnapping scams targeting people in the USA are made from criminals in Mexico, sometimes even from Mexican jails.
If you are called:
- Do not hang up.
- Ask to speak to the kidnapped person in order to verify his or her identity and safety.
- If the caller refuses, ask the caller to describe the person being held for ransom. What color are his or her hair and eyes? If you know what the allegedly kidnapped person was wearing when the kidnapping supposedly happened, ask the caller to describe the kidnapped party’s clothing.
- Text the victim to see if he or she is really in danger. (Note that students in school often do not check messages during class, which is why criminals often choose students to be the party “being held for ransom.”)
- Text your local police with information as to what is going on, or, if need be, ask someone else to do so.
- If you are in a car or if the caller asks you to drive to a bank to withdraw money – drive to the nearest police station, and ask law enforcement for help. Mute your phone when doing so, or, even better, if possible, write a note to show officers.
- Do not pay virtual kidnapping ransoms. Do not wire money to the caller. Do not send money via Western Union to the caller. Do not purchase gift cards and provide the caller with the information on the cards.