FBI warns of 'virtual kidnapping' cases during the holidays

KTVI -- With the holiday travel in full swing, the FBI is warning about a crime that would put any parent in panic mode.

Virtual kidnappings happen when con artists claim to be holding a family member for ransom.

Steven D'Antuono is the FBI Assist Special Agent in Charge in the St. Louis Division.

"You get that call as a parent. You get panicked. You start thinking, is this true?"

In a virtual kidnapping, a person is called by someone claiming to be a kidnapper. But here's the catch: no one has been kidnapped.

"People travel in Mexico. Lose their phone, or lose their personal information," D'Antuono said.

"The kidnappers are versed enough and sophisticated enough to take that information. And then use that to call the loved phones."

The number of virtual kidnappings remains the same compared to this time last year, D'Antuono said. However, many of the cases happen during the busy holiday travel season. Most of the cases originate in Mexico, D'Antouno said. People on vacation lose their cell phones and the criminals spring into action.

Using that personal information, the kidnapping imposter will demand the family wire ransom money.

If it seems hard to believe, consider this – about 17% of virtual kidnappings cases – or one in five – are successful. That is, victims end up paying the money, only later to discover that they were tricked. "It's a panic situation and loved ones are going to be very traumatized by this," he said.

Retrieving the money can be extremely difficult. D'Antuono said awareness is the best way to avoid becoming a victim.

If you receive a text or call claiming a friend or family member has been kidnapped, call police immediately. Also, demand proof that the alleged kidnapped person is present. Demand a picture, or to speak to the person.

"Because if it's a virtual kidnapping they don't actually have the person. They might have the phone, or they might have the information, but they don't physically have the person, "D'Antuono said.

RELATED: Learn how to avoid Facebook scams:

How to avoid Facebook phishing scams
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How to avoid Facebook phishing scams

1. Exercise common sense

Why is somebody offering you something that costs them money to purchase - and to market - for free? Does there seem to be a legitimate reason for the offer? What value does the party giving away the object receive in return? Does that value warrant giving away the object - or is the offer simply too good to be true? As you probably learned as a child - "don't take candy from strangers."

2. Consider how much is being given away

Legitimate giveaways done for marketing purposes are typically inexpensive items, downloadable materials, or extremely small quantities of expensive items to a small percentage of sweepstakes winners selected from a targeted group; any offer that claims to be giving away large numbers of expensive items should raise a red flag as doing so rarely makes sense from a business standpoint, especially if the offer is being promoted to the general public on social media.

(Adam Gault via Getty Images)

3. Check if a page is verified

Most major businesses are verified (with a white check on a blue circle - some small businesses have similar marks that are white on gray), so if an offer is ostensibly coming from a large business and the page from which it is being posted is not verified, that may signal problems. Not all businesses are verified; if you see a post from a business that is not verified, however, you can search on the business's name and see if there is a verified account for the business - if there is, you know that the unverified account is likely fake.

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4. Look at the fine print

Legitimate sweepstakes and giveaways always have some sorts of "fine print" associated with them - if there are no "Offer Details," "Terms and Conditions," or the like, consider a huge red flag to have been raised.

(Reptile8488 via Getty Images)

5. Look for signs of an unprofessional post

Spelling mistakes, grammar mistakes, misuse of idioms, writing that appears to have been auto-translated or written without knowledge of "how people speak," or photos that don't seem to match the post are all red flags. Do you really think a major firm running a marketing campaign doesn't check its content before posting it on Facebook?

(Just One Film via Getty Images)

6. Check the page's age and what appeared on it prior to the questionable post

it is a bad sign if a page was created right before an offer post was made. Of course, criminals know that people look out for page age - so they may create pages and post for a while before using the page for scams. So look out for what content was shared before? Does it make sense coming from the business? Do the comments on those posts make sense? Often there are giveaways on such pages that something is amiss.


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