AMU Law Enforcement Original Public Safety

Virtual Kidnapping Scams: How to Avoid Becoming a Victim

Scammers have evolved significantly over time, and they continue to be a problem both online and offline.

Scams come in many different forms. According to the Federal Trade Commission, consumers who were scammed lost $8.8 billion in 2022.

Related: Crime Prevention for Your Home or Business

What Is a Virtual Kidnapping?

One scam that is quite frequent involves virtual kidnapping. In my law enforcement career, I have often responded to calls involving these scams and terrified victims.

With a virtual kidnapping, scammers use the internet and social media sites to collect information about a kidnapping victim. That information includes:

  • The kidnapping victim’s relatives
  • The vehicle the kidnapping victim drives
  • Areas frequented by the kidnapping victim
  • The current location of the kidnapping victim (for instance, if the kidnapping victim is on a trip and away from home)

Virtual kidnappers contact their victims and convince them that someone they care about (such as a spouse, child, or grandchild) has been kidnapped. The victim is then urged to send money.

During the virtual kidnapping call, the scammers go to great lengths to be convincing. They relay personal details about the kidnapping victim, gathered through their online research.

According to Connect Safely, virtual kidnappers sometimes even clone the loved one’s phone number as a part of the scam. For the victim, the call appears to originate from the loved one’s phone, making the scam more convincing. There may even be someone screaming or crying during the phone call to convince the victim that the kidnapping victim is the loved one.

These types of scams often catch the victim off guard. The scammer may threaten to harm the kidnapping victim if law enforcement is called or if money is not immediately sent. Often, scammers insist that a ransom be sent in the form of cryptocurrency.

Elderly people with grandchildren are a particular target for virtual kidnapping scammers. The scammers sometimes impersonate a police officer, allege that a grandchild was arrested and say that money needs to be sent for bail.

Artificial Intelligence Technology Has Contributed to the Problem of Virtual Kidnapping

According to NBC Right Now, the use of artificial intelligence (AI) technology has exacerbated the problem of virtual kidnapping. AI tools can be used to clone the voice of a kidnapping victim, or scammers can use AI to impersonate a law enforcement officer.

What to Do If You Receive a Call from a Virtual Kidnapper

During a virtual kidnapping, remaining calm and thinking clearly is essential. The FBI advises hanging up if you suspect you’ve received a scam call.

Then, call your loved one with the phone number you know that belongs to that person. While it is possible that the scammer cloned the loved one’s number, it is unlikely that the return call will go directly to the scammer.

But if you choose to remain on the line with the scammer, it is best to call 911. Use a separate phone, turn on the speaker of that phone and allow the 911 operator to hear the call through your speaker. Because 911 calls are recorded, including the 911 operator on the scam call can aid in the investigation and subsequent prosecution of the scammer.

The next step is to immediately check on your loved one. If that person doesn’t answer your call, look for that person’s current location with the location-sharing feature of that person’s phone (for instance, an iPhone has a “Share My Location” feature). Then, take a screenshot of the loved one’s current location for the police.

Another option for determining if a phone call is a virtual kidnapping scam is to ask the scammer to verify the loved one’s scars, tattoos, or clothing or ask to speak directly to the kidnapping victim. Always avoid providing any additional information to the scammer.

However, remember that AI provides the technology to clone a voice. If you talk with a kidnapping victim, Connect Safely recommends that you ask that person a question with an answer that only the loved one would know.

Related: Child Abductions: How to Mitigate the Danger

Education Is Useful in Preventing Virtual Kidnapping Scams

To avoid being a victim of a virtual kidnapping, discussing this type of scam with your loved ones is useful. It also helps to know where loved ones are traveling or their current location throughout the day.

Elderly people with grandchildren are a particular target for virtual kidnapping scammers. The scammers sometimes allege that a grandchild was arrested, and money needs to be sent for bail.

It’s also useful to educate your family and friends to be cautious of what they post online, especially on social media sites. In addition, be sure to use social media sites’ privacy settings to limit who can see your posts and remove online voice recordings of your loved ones to mitigate the risk of voice cloning through AI.

If you are contacted by someone you don’t know personally, especially if you suspect a virtual kidnapping scam, never provide that person with personal or financial information before double-checking that person’s identity. That information includes your home address, credit card number, Social Security number, the names of other family members, or any other information that could aid a scammer.

Jarrod Sadulski

Dr. Jarrod Sadulski is an associate professor in the School of Security and Global Studies and has over two decades in the field of criminal justice. His expertise includes training on countering human trafficking, maritime security, effective stress management in policing and narcotics trafficking trends in Latin America. Jarrod frequently conducts in-country research and consultant work in Central and South America on human trafficking and current trends in narcotics trafficking. He also has a background in business development. For more information on Jarrod and links to his social media and website, check out

Comments are closed.