A hostage-style kidnapping is the ultimate nightmare for families. Nothing is more gut wrenching and horrific than the idea that someone would take your loved one, threaten them with harm, and demand money in exchange for their life. It's an unthinkable evil, but it happens often enough that most people wouldn't think twice about taking a kidnapper's ransom demands seriously.
Because of these factors, a new type of scam has emerged that preys upon the deepest fears a family can face. Using the latest technology, hackers and criminals can spoof a loved one's phone number, which allows them to fake a kidnapping plot -- complete with a ransom payoff. Worst of all, they're only getting better at faking it!
If you are sick of robocalls, the scams of the future might shock you enough to make you appreciate them. Here's what you need to know about this terrifying kidnapping scam, and what you can do to keep criminal phone-pranksters out of your life for good.
How are cybercriminals faking kidnappings?
Extortion scams are as old as time itself, but technology has given criminals the upper hand in fooling their marks. The latest "fake kidnapping" scams are accomplished primarily through a process called "phone spoofing."
Using easy-to-find software from the internet, criminals can fake the phone number that displays on caller ID when they reach out to their victims. These scammers use programs like Skype to make the calls, which lets them perform their activities on a computer.
Scammers go to excessive lengths to fool victims, including having friends impersonate the person "kidnapped" in the background of calls. For extra security, the scammers will often employ prepaid "burner phones" they can easily dispose to cover their tracks.
These extortionists will typically call wealthier ZIP codes, such as Beverly Hills, in order to maximize their financial impact. Once they identify a mark, scammers will use social media to discover personal information about the phone number they're spoofing. The rest of the scam is typical cold-reading dialogue that con-artists always employ, but with a sadistic twist against families.
According to statements released by the FBI, many of these fake kidnapping calls are coming from outside the country. A significant portion of the calls can apparently trace their origins to prisons, where crafty scammers have bribed guards for prepaid cell phones with internet access.
This is why kidnapping scammers usually ask for sums of money that won't attract too much attention from authorities -- thousands as opposed to millions. Once you've paid them, though, there's no way to get it back.
How can you protect yourself
As technology continues to advance in the coming years, scams like this will only become more common and more difficult to detect. Analysts estimate that in the near future, people will be able to use deepfake-like technology to perfectly mimic voices for nefarious ends. When that point is reached, telling real kidnapping calls from fake ones will be more difficult than ever before.
Because of this, there's a few best practices you can remember to keep yourself safe from ill-intentioned scammers. If you ever receive a call from a number you recognize but a voice you don't, remain calm.
Don't hesitate to reach out to the real owner of that number in a discrete way. Send a Facebook message or email while stalling the person on the phone. If your loved one responds to you, that flags the caller as a spoofer and a fraud, and you can disregard sending them any money at all.
Most importantly, contact authorities and report this scam as a crime. Even though nobody was hurt, that doesn't mean these criminals can't go on to extort others. By reporting their activities, you can potentially save many other families from heartache and financial woes.
Alternatively, developing a "code word" for you and your family members in case of danger is a wise decision. Only you will know what this word is, making it much more difficult to fake, and impossible to do so with cold reading.
Most importantly, screen calls and stay highly aware when you answer any. You never know who might really be on the other side of the phone.
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