The Federal Bureau of Investigation - Chicago Division is warning of virtual kidnapping scams targeting families in Illinois and nationwide.
The FBI said similar scams have been happening for at least two decades, but the recent scam has evolved to "exploit new vulnerabilities."
"Virtual kidnappers scour the internet for targets by searching for social media posts by international travelers," the FBI said in a release.
According to officials, the scammers contact the target's family members claiming to have taken the person hostage. The person's family is then coerced into paying a ransom quickly to ensure their loved one is released.
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Typically, the FBI said the virtual kidnappers will request payments through a wire transfer and push families to act quickly.
Though the target was never actually in physical danger, the ransom money has disappeared by the time the family members realize the scam.
"Virtual kidnappers can be very convincing, often representing themselves as members of drug cartels or corrupt law enforcement," the FBI noted.
Family members might hear screams in the background of the call, but scammers have been known to use realistic-sounding recordings, according to the FBI.
Here's how the FBI says to avoid virtual kidnapping scams:
- Never post news of upcoming travel dates and locations online
- Discuss virtual kidnapping with family members prior to any travel
- Have a “password” that family members can ask for in an emergency to confirm that a loved one is really in trouble
- Be wary of providing financial information to strangers over the phone
Here's how to recognize a virtual kidnapping scam, according to officials:
- Calls may not come from the kidnapped target’s phone
- Callers go to great lengths to keep victims on the phone
- Callers are usually unable to answer simple questions about targets such as what they look like
- Ransom money is only accepted via a wire transfer service
- Callers request that the ransom funds be wired to multiple people in several small amounts
The FBI asked anyone who believes they are targets of a virtual kidnapping scam to call 9-1-1 immediately and ask that the FBI be informed.