The FBI is advising people to hang up if they receive a call from a woman screaming for help.
A decades-old virtual kidnapping scam is placing more U.S. residents at risk of becoming potential victims, the FBI warned on its website.
The scheme takes many forms, but basically callers trick victims into paying ransoms to free family or friends who have been “kidnapped.” The virtual abductors coerce victims to pay a ransom before victims can find out that no one has been kidnapped.
The FBI had been tracking virtual kidnapping calls primarily from prisons in Mexico between 2013 and 2015. The callers targeted individuals who spoke Spanish, the FBI said. Most of the victims were from the Los Angeles and Houston areas.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Kansas City Star
The FBI issued the warning because kidnappers have widened their pool of potential victims by no longer targeting only specific individuals and Spanish speakers. The callers also are cold-calling numbers in various cities.
In a recent investigation, the FBI found that more than 80 people have fallen victim to the new tactics in California, Minnesota, Idaho and Texas. Those victims paid more than $87,000 in ransom.
An FBI spokeswoman for the Kansas City offices said she was not aware of any instances that have occurred in Kansas or Missouri where the FBI was involved.
The scam works this way: The potential victim answers a call and hears a woman screaming, “Help me!” The victim might blurt out a name, like Mary, asking her if she’s OK. At that point, the caller will tell the victim that Mary has been kidnapped and she will be harmed if ransom isn’t paid quickly.
The scam is successful when victims don’t know the whereabouts of their loved ones.
The scammers typically demand that the ransoms are wired to Mexico. The amount is typically less than $2,000 because of legal restrictions for wiring larger amounts across the border, the FBI said.
However, two victims in Houston were coerced to pay larger ransoms by making money drops.
A federal grand jury charged a 34-year-old Houston woman in July with 10 counts, including wire fraud and money laundering, for her involvement in the scam. The charges are the first federal indictment in a virtual kidnapping case, the FBI said.
How to avoid falling victim
If you receive a call from someone demanding ransom for an alleged kidnap victim, the FBI suggests:
▪ Hang up the phone.
▪ Don’t call out your loved one’s name if you do respond to call.
▪ Request to speak with the alleged victim.
▪ Ask questions only the alleged victim would know.
▪ Listen to the voice of the alleged victim if they do speak.
▪ Try to contact the alleged victim on the phone, text or social media.
▪ Don’t agree to pay a ransom.
▪ If you believe a real kidnapping has taken place, call the Kansas City office of the FBI at 816-512-8200 or 911.