Got a Roku, Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV or Android TV? Get PIX11 content there now!

FBI, NYPD warn of ‘frightening’ virtual kidnapping scam

This is an archived article and the information in the article may be outdated. Please look at the time stamp on the story to see when it was last updated.

NEW YORK (PIX11) — New Yorkers are being warned of a frightening scam on the rise in which callers claim to have kidnapped a family member and can only promise their safety if they’re given money right away.

“This is a scheme that takes advantage of some of the most vulnerable people in New York City,” said FBI Assistant Director in Charge George Venizelos. “We need the public to be aware of this scam and call us if they have been a victim.”

In this scheme, no actual kidnapping has taken place but the scammers employ co-conspirators, like a woman screaming in the background, to help their case seem more real, the FBI and NYPD warned this week.

The scammers’ reasons for the phony kidnappings vary, but usually involve car crashes, drug debts, gang assaults or human smuggling across the border.

Investigators gave this example of how scammers may take advantage of scared and unknowing victims: A man may call a home saying the victim’s friend or relative was in a car crash with a gang member and was kidnapped. That “kidnapped” victim is seriously injured, the caller says, but won’t be taken to the hospital until the caller gets enough money to cover the phony damage to the non-existent gang member’s car.

There appears to be no rhyme or reason as to why certain people are targeted, police said, with scammers appearing to dial random numbers and harassing whomever answers.

Demanding payment between $600 and $1,900, the scammers usually say the money must be transferred immediately using a wire company, like Western Union. Once the payment is made, the extortionists often say the cash wasn’t received and demand more money, officials said.

The callers are typically men who speak with a Spanish accent, officials said.

Some red flags that suggest a call may be coming from scammers include:

  • Incoming calls come from an outside area code, sometimes from Puerto Rico with area codes (787), (939) and (856)
  • Calls do not come from the kidnapped victim’s phone
  • Callers go to great lengths to keep you on the phone
  • Callers prevent you from calling or locating the “kidnapped” victim
  • Ransom money is only accepted via wire transfer service

If you receive a phone call from someone who demands ransom money for a kidnapped loved one, the FBI suggests considering doing the following:

  • Try to slow the situation down. Request to speak to the victim directly. Ask, “How do I know my loved one is okay?”
  • If they don’t let you speak to the victim, ask them to describe the victim or describe the vehicle they drive, if applicable.
  • Listen carefully to the voice of the kidnapped victim if they speak.
  • Attempt to call, text, or contact the victim via social media. Request that the victim call back from his or her cellphone.
  • While staying on the line with alleged kidnappers, try to call the alleged kidnap victim from another phone.
  • To buy time, repeat the caller’s request and tell them you are writing down the demand, or tell the caller you need time to get things moving.
  • Don’t directly challenge or argue with the caller. Keep your voice low and steady.
  • Request the kidnapped victim call back from his/her cellphone.

Anyone with information about the virtual kidnappings or who thinks they may have been a victim of these scammers should call the FBI at 212-384-1000 or the NYPD at 800-577-TIPS.

If you believe you are the victim of a real kidnapping, call 911 or your local FBI office.