Just the title, Virtual Kidnapping, sounds scary enough. There's a good reason for that: it is. Let me provide a quick caveat - kidnapping does happen, obviously; however, this is different than that and is purely extortion.
Virtual Kidnapping is the process when scammers call you on your phone, generally using number spoofing. This will create the appearance that the number you are being called from it local. It will make both the area code and prefix look local, and with most cell phones, under the phone number, it will say the location (e.g. Portland, Oregon). However, once you answer that call, everything changes drastically. Occasionally, this call will be from an “Unknown” phone number.
The scammers will contact you and explain that your child has been kidnapped. They will then demand a ransom for their "safe return” or “(they) will (insert horrific event here).“ Scammers have gone as far as to have the voice of a young boy or girl screaming in the background, making it feel even more real. This is exacerbated when you have a daughter/son, and it is a voice that sounds familiar. Of course, when you first hear that your loved one is kidnapped, any voice could sound like your child’s. It’s part of the brain’s response. There have been two families who have fallen victim here in my home state of Oregon, but down around the US/Mexico border, the numbers skyrocket. Why? Cartels. They are actually paying people to extort victims out of thousands and thousands of dollars.
Before we dive into how this happens, let me explain that this is all a hoax. It is not true, and it's simply extortion.
So, the important question: how does this happen?
Honestly, the first issue...is you. I know this sounds silly, rude, inaccurate, and victim blaming, but stick with me for a second. How does someone know you have a child; moreover, how do they know if your child is a boy or girl? FACEBOOK. Facebook, Facebook, Facebook. First, if you don't have a private Facebook profile, you should. This means someone cannot see your Personal Information or posts. They can, however, see your Profile Picture and Name. This means that even if you have a private profile, but you Profile Picture has your child in it, a scammer knows that you have a child. Even worse, if it's public, they can see where you are, and when you're most likely to be away from your child. This primarily applies to parents with children that are not yet of legal age.
But what if your child is over 18-years-old, possibly in college or moved away? Here's where it gets tricky, and this is where the children need to be on-board with the private profile aspect as well. Think about something really quick - if you saw 25 private Facebook profiles, meaning you can just see the person's name and profile picture, and I asked you if the person in question was a college student or moved out from their parents, or if they were not, I bet you'd score over 50%. Most would probably be closer to 75%. That's what these scammers are primarily doing. They are finding college kids. God forbid those kids have public profiles, which sometime even has their Family Information (Father, Mother, Siblings, etc.), proves to a scammer that they're in college, maybe even what sorority, fraternity, or club they're involved in. From there, it's as simple as finding a phone number, which isn't as hard as you think. Google your own name, and see if you can find your own phone number. Now let's pray that the college kid's profile is private. This makes it more difficult, but definitely not impossible. Now that you've put your own name into Google, try your children's name. See if you can find your phone number simply by putting their name in the search bar. If you can't, you're in luck. You're also the exception to the rule.
My recommendation is to make all of your social media profiles private, especially anything with lots of personal data and/or photos. The two that stand out to me are Facebook and Instagram (coincidentally enough, owned by Facebook).
I will both link to articles about how to make your Facebook and Instagram private, but I will also go through it step-by-step. As I deleted my Facebook early in 2019, I can't verify that this method works. If it doesn't, please email me immediately.
1. Click the downward facing arrow in the top-right corner.
2. Navigate to Settings
3. Click Privacy on the left toolbar
This is where you can configure everything. At the very least, change "Who can see my stuff" to "Friends".
1. Go to your profile (the little person avatar in the bottom-right corner)
2. Click the three, stacked horizontal lines in the top-right corner
3. At the bottom of the sidebar that slides out, you'll see a gear icon with "Settings" next to it. Click on "Settings".
4. Click Privacy
5. Click Account Privacy (about halfway down)
6. Toggle switch to Private
The FBI issued the following tips on what you can look for if you become a victim of this scam:
Calls (along the border) are usually made from an outside area code
The incident may involve multiple phone calls
Calls do not come from the kidnapped victim’s phone
Callers go to great lengths to keep you on the phone
Callers prevent you from calling or locating the “kidnapped” victim
Ransom money is only accepted via wire transfer service
If you receive a phone call from someone who demands payment of a ransom for a kidnapped victim, the following should be considered:
Try to slow the situation down.
Avoid sharing information about you or your family during the call.
Request to speak to the victim directly. Ask, “How do I know my loved one is okay?”
Request the kidnapped victim call back from his/her cell phone.
Listen carefully to the voice of the kidnapped victim if they speak, and ask questions only they would know.
If they don’t let you speak to the victim, ask them to describe the victim or describe the vehicle they drive, if applicable.
While staying on the line with alleged kidnappers, try to call the alleged kidnap victim from another phone.
Attempt to text, or contact the victim via social media.
Attempt to physically locate the victim.
To buy time, repeat the caller’s request and tell them you are writing down the demand, or tell the caller you need time to get things moving.
Don’t directly challenge or argue with the caller. Keep your voice low and steady.
Yes, I understand how scary this could be for a parent, but if you still are questioning whether or not having a private profile is important, I highly recommend reading THE CHAIN by Adrian McKinty. It takes the premise of virtual kidnapping to a new level. It's a great fiction thriller, and hopefully it will shed more light on this issue.