'Virtual kidnapping' is on the rise: Here's how to protect your family

Woman with serious face expression talking on phone in park
Woman with serious expression talking on mobile phone in park, dramatic light coming through treetops and falling on her face Copyright Getty Images stock
By Meghan Holohan with TODAY Lifestyle
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What do you do if you get a call from someone claiming they kidnapped your child?


When Mark Walker's received a call from his daughter a few weeks ago, he answered immediately. But it was not his daughter. Instead it was a man claiming to have kidnapped Walker's daughter. He told Walker he'd murder Walker's daughter if he did not send ransom money.

"He said, 'I'm not playing around,'" Walker told WTHR, an NBC affiliate in Indianapolis. "He said, 'If you call the police I'm going to kill her.'"

While Walker felt scared, he did not give into the caller's demands. He asked his wife to check on his daughter. She was safe. Walker was a victim of what's known as virtual kidnapping, a hoax that is spreading, according to the FBI.

On the same day, Walker's son experienced a similar virtual kidnapping threat. Just days after the Walkers' experience, an elementary school teacher in suburban Indianapolis reported she received a similar call, according to WTHR. A man calling from her sister's number said if she wanted to save her sister she'd have to send him money.

"He didn't say her name, but he said 'I have your sister' and he said, 'I'm not playing around,'" the woman, who asked to remain anonymous, told WTHR.

Frightened, she hung up and called her family while her school called police and initiated a lockdown. Soon, she learned her sister was fine.

Virtual kidnapping happens when scammers research people on social media and find phone numbers. They "spoof" a number of a person the victim knows so it appears that person is calling. Spoofing occurs when a scammer changes caller ID information to hide their identity and make it seem as if the call is coming from a person the victim knows. Then the person alleges they are holding the loved one and demand ransom.

"This scam has been going on for 20 years, where someone calls and says, 'Your loved one's in jail' or 'I have kidnapped your loved one.' But it is much more sophisticated now," Theresa Payton, a security consultant and CEO at Fortalice, told Kathie Lee and Hoda on TODAY. "They go on social media and look up cell phone numbers and they learn about you."

Payton recommends people take some steps before, during and after to protect themselves from this hoax.

Have a family secret code word: "Get a secret code word with your family that people can't guess on social media. So say 'If you have my kid, tell my kid to tell me the secret code word.' Most of the time if it's a scam they are not going to know the secret code word," Payton said.

Have them slow down: Stall. Tell them you can't hear them. Ask if you can call them back. Keep them talking. Scams like this fail as soon as the would-be target realizes their loved one is safe.

Contact the victim: As you keep the person talking, text the alleged victim to see if they are OK. Because the scammer is only changing the caller ID and does not have the victim's real phone, your loved one can respond.

Report it: "Absolutely you should report it," Payton said. People should report virtual kidnappings threats to:

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