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Virtual kidnapping explained: got a call your loved one was kidnapped? Don’t panic


Virtual kidnapping sounds like a concept straight out of a Hollywood movie. However, it’s way closer to reality than science fiction.

A kidnapping hoax is a type of scam where malicious actors call a person and threaten to kill or otherwise harm their loved ones if they don't get a specific sum of money.

While kidnapping is by far the most practiced type of this scam, physical threats range based on cybercriminals’ creativity.

The malicious actors might try to convince the victims that someone was arrested and needs a bailout or requires money for urgent surgery following a car accident.

Evolution of fake kidnappings

How did social media kidnapping scam or fake kidnappings evolve? Well, it got to the point where the FBI had to issue multiple warnings at the beginning of 2022, when more than 400 malicious calls were made. And that’s just in the Pitsburg area.

Why is it hard to know the real numbers? Well, most of these attacks are either reported just at the local level or not reported entirely, meaning their real scale is immeasurable.

Kidnapping scams kicked off as regular phone scams with fake stories – it was their starting point or level 1.

Remember those crazy times when no one had social media accounts? With the new "share everything about yourself online" movement, malicious actors advanced to level 2 – virtual kidnapping for ransom. Why make things up when you can just follow a person for a month or so on social media, and know exactly when they do things, who their friends are, and the locations they mostly visit?

If you upload a photo from a music festival, well, that just might be the signal for a malicious actor to try and scam your parents.

In recent years, this advanced to level 3 – indistinguishable kidnappings, mainly for two reasons – deepfake phishing and voice cloning technology. With voice cloning, all you need is a sample of the person talking, their YouTube video, a Facebook story, anything you post can be used.

The virtual abductors have your voice now. All they have left to do is collect photos of your face from all the nooks and crannies of the web and use deepfake technology to put your face on another person.

Add these together, and the scammers not only know all about you, but they can even pretend to be you. At this point, no one can be blamed for falling for a scam like this.

History of virtual kidnappings

This threat originated as a Mexico kidnapping scam, where inmates would use smuggled phones to stage incidents.

These attacks were mostly random at first, hitting a large pool of victims. While it was harder to scam people a decade ago, it also was much harder to check on your family members due to mostly limited internet access.

We might assume that the scam would die out with the advancement of communication technology. In fact, it’s become even more sophisticated.

Can you avoid this scam?

What’s the magical way to protect yourself from virtual kidnapping? Well, there's no one thing, but we've learned that scammers use all the info they gather on you online to prepare their attacks.

Be careful when sharing specific details about your life, and limit sensitive information available about you online. We are not suggesting stopping posting entirely, but make sure you know exactly what info you're sharing.

Also, take your time. If you get a phone call that’s telling you a loved one has been kidnaped, don’t panic.

First, try to call that person, not only on their phone, but try getting a hold of them through Facebook, Viber, or any other social media that the malicious actors might not have tempered with.

If that fails, call friends or family members that might be with that person or know where they are.

Realize that these scams work by confusing and stressing you out, so to counter it, stop and analyze the situation.


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