Phone calls are made to the family demanding ransom money, but the scammers don't actually have the child held hostage—they're getting information from the parents' social media.

By Rebecca Macatee
fizkes/Shutterstock

March 20, 2019

Getting a phone call from someone saying they've kidnapped your child is every parent's worst nightmare. It'd be terrifying, and we can totally see how someone would send over a mass amount of ransom money without actually having any proof that their kid was in danger.

Unfortunately, criminals realize this, which would explain the two "virtual kidnapping" cases that happened earlier this month in California. In this cruel scam, the culprit called the parents, said their children had been kidnapped, and demanded a ransom for their safe return. Laguna Beach Police confirmed to the Orange County Register that there were no actual abductions in either case, but the parents were obviously traumatized by the whole ordeal.

Police were able to stop one parent from wiring over a $6,000 ransom, but the other victim had already paid $5,000 before uncovering the "virtual kidnapping" scam. Authorities have not identified the parents or children, but they believe the scammers behind the calls have roots in Mexico, specifically in Mexican prisons.

If the scammers didn't have the kids held hostage, though, how did they know their names and basic information about them? Here's what's scary: Law enforcement sources tell NBC News they suspect the criminals gathered the information from the parents' social media accounts.

These weren't isolated incidents, either. Law enforcement sources say that "virtual kidnappings" are an underreported crime, particularly in Southern California. The FBI actually issued a warning about this type of scam last year, noting that the "perpetrators of these crimes are becoming more sophisticated...[and] using social media and social engineering to dupe people into thinking their loved ones have been kidnapped."

If you ever receive a call this, the FBI states that in most cases, "the best course of action is to hang up the phone." You'll obviously want to try and contact the alleged victim via phone, text or social media, and ask other family members if they've received a threatening call as well.

Per the FBI's warning, "If you do engage the caller, do not disclose your loved one's name or provide any identifying information." Ask to speak to your family member directly, and listen carefully to the voice of the alleged victim. Oftentimes it's someone posing as the kidnapping victim.

Do your best to stay calm and slow the situation down. The FBI says you should not agree to pay a ransom—by wire or in person—and if you suspect a real kidnapping is taking place or you think a ransom demand scheme is underway, contact your nearest FBI office or local law enforcement immediately.

And lastly, please don't be scared by this information: Use it! We do our best to educate our kids about child abduction prevention, and it's smart to make ourselves aware of these "virtual kidnapping" scams as well. Knowing schemes like this exist—and being able to recognize if you're the victim of one—takes the power away from the criminals.

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