Imagine that you’re rushing to your office on a typical Monday morning and suddenly your phone rings and a menacing voice informs you that your wife/husband/child has been kidnapped. The person then threatens to kill your loved one unless you pay up. Ransom money is demanded but the caller refuses to put the “kidnapped” victim on the phone, despite your incessant pleas to talk to the victim.

You are gripped with anxiety; afraid to even think about the unthinkable and agree to pay the ransom only to realise hours later that the kidnapping never happened and that your loved one is completely safe and unharmed. This is virtual kidnapping.

The 'kidnappers' rely on theatrics and technological skills

Virtual kidnappers rely solely on deception, fear and their technological expertise to make families think that a loved one is in danger and a ransom must be paid immediately, through an electronic transaction or wire transfer, in order to gain their release,” explains a CNBC report.

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These kidnappers are mostly con artists or extortionists, usually living overseas. Thanks to their convincing theatrics, the receiver of such calls usually fall for the #Scam.

In some cases, a scammer will contact a person by telephone claiming that the person's loved one was involved in a road accident that damaged the caller's vehicle. The scammer then threatens to kidnap and harm the resident's loved one unless the caller immediately receives ransom money, explains Palo Alto police in a release.

"The language they're using is the language you expect from someone calling to tell you that your wife's not going to make it," Travis Hamblet, a victim, told KHOU.com.

Hamblet was on his way to attend a meeting when he got a call from a man who told him there had been a car accident and began to inform Hamblet about his wife.

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Yet another incident, a high-profile one, took place in October 2016, when a woman living in Washington, D.C. was duped to pay £6,904 by scammers who convinced her that her daughter had been abducted.

Most of the virtual kidnapping calls go unreported as the victims feel either too embarrassed or afraid to tell, stated the FBI, in a CNBC report.

"While virtual kidnappings have not been widely seen in the United States and Europe, they have long been common in parts of Latin America and Asia, particularly in Mexico, Brazil, Taiwan and the Philippines," writes Scott Stewart, VP of Tactical Analysis at a private intelligence firm called Stratfor, in an analytical report.

According to a 2015 FBI press release, fraudulent calls can be identified with the help of certain indicators, including the following:

  • The call usually comes from an outside area code
  • The person doesn't call from the kidnapped victim’s cell phone
  • Scammers go to great lengths to keep you on the phone to prevent you from contacting/locating the “abducted” victim or informing the police
  • Ransom money is accepted only electronically

Holding Data Hostage

Another form of virtual kidnapping is holding one's data hostage.

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In this case, scammers infect a computer, usually via an e-mail attachment or a malicious website. Using the ransomware, the criminals are able to encrypt all the files, and an electronic ransom note is issued. Getting those files back means paying a fee to the criminals who control the malware—and hoping they will keep their side of the bargain by decrypting them, explains an MIT Technology Review article.

One of the major reasons behind a surge in virtual kidnapping cases is the fact that it's very easy to carry out. Most of the information that a virtual kidnapper needs, other than the contact details, are easily available on popular social networking sites. In order to make the kidnapping seem legitimate, some scammers dig up the victim’s social media to find out the names of their loved ones among other details.

Also, calling the victims from overseas makes them difficult to trace and catch. And even if a virtual kidnapper gets caught, they do not face the harsher punishments that a conventional kidnapper would. This is because virtual abduction is an extortion or a confidence scam with no harm caused, so even if the criminal gets caught he/she is able to get away with a lesser sentence, notes the Stratfor article.