FBI warns parents about 'virtual kidnapping' scam

Caller claims they've kidnapped your child to get ransom money

By Brittny McGraw - Anchor

ROANOKE, Va. - A phone call claiming your child has been kidnapped would make any parent's heart sink, but the FBI warns that it is probably a scam.

The FBI says several families in California have been targeted by "virtual kidnapping" scams this week, and the agency warns it could happen anywhere. Julie Wheeler, president of the Better Business Bureau serving Western Virginia, says the scammer claims they've kidnapped your child and you need to pay a ransom to free them.

"It's terrifying, I mean, you think about hearing your supposed child screaming in the background and some big gruff voice threatening them harm if you don't give them money, that strikes terror in every parent's heart or grandparent's heart," Wheeler said.

Wheeler said this type of scam has been around for years and in the past has also targeted grandparents or other family members by saying a loved one has been in a wreck or is in jail. 

"The whole common theme is they need money to get out of trouble," Wheeler said.

She said technology has made it easier for scammers to reach out to potential victims or find information about potential targets through Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. They can also use call spoofing to make it appear that they're calling from a number you know. She said that is why it is important to try to call or text your son or daughter.

"Anything you can try to do to confirm that they're OK while you're on the phone is a good thing," Wheeler said.

The FBI said in most cases, just hang up. If you stay on the call, don't say your loved one's name. You can also ask questions only the alleged kidnap victim would know, such as a pet's name. The FBI urges you not to pay a ransom by wire or in person.

Wheeler added, "Don't panic! That's probably the No. 1 thing. Take a deep breath. Where is your child right now? Where are they supposed to be?"

She said this should also serve as a reminder to pay attention to what you're posting online.

"Your social media profiles, make sure they're private," Wheeler said. "Don't have them public to where anybody can see who your friends are. If they're private, it's only the people you've friended. And only friend people you know." 

If you do get a call like this, call local police or the nearest FBI office. The FBI typically handles these types of cases because the calls often come from out of the country.    

Click here for more FBI information on "virtual kidnapping." 

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