Kidnapped person

Virtual kidnapping scam strikes again. Spot the signs

Warnings abound of a major new piece of fraud doing the rounds which uses your relative’s voice as part of a blackmail scam. What happens is the victim receives a call from said relative’s number, and they’re cut off by blackmailers who have them held hostage. The only way to get them back safely is to pay a sizable sum of money, usually within a time limit. Refusal to pay up could clearly end very badly for the person being held to ransom.

There’s just one problem with this: It’s all fake.

When virtual kidnappers attack

The tale is retold by a Tik-Tok user who fell for the scam tactic, who says:

“New scam alert. I usually don’t fall for scams but they got me.”

The victim recounts how she heard the voice of her mother “fading away.” This is supposed to sound like someone being dragged away from the phone. At this point, a stranger jumps on the call demanding money “or else.” The scammer may be working alone, or have someone else doing things like yelling in the background at the non-existent kidnap victim. It’s all designed to convince the victim to hand over a large amount of cash in as short a time as possible.

In terms of demands, the pretend abductors demanded $1,000 in US dollars via Venmo or CashApp. The recipient of this call could only afford to send $100, at which point the callers ended the call. What followed was an understandably panicked call to the victim’s mother, who was safe the whole time.

Scams go around, come around

This is clearly an unpleasant story, but let’s take a deep breath before we perhaps become a little too alarmed by references to newness and (most importantly) claims of using your relative’s voice.

First, this is not a new tactic. Not at all. These are usually referred to as virtual kidnapping scams, and they’ve been around for some years now. Here’s an FBI release regarding the targeting of doctors back in 2014.

In fact, we covered a virtual kidnapping threat around the same time which threw a few more scam tactics into the mix. In those attacks, a fraudster would: Pretend to be from a phone network, and call the person intended to be the fake kidnap victim. The fake phone network engineer would tell this person to turn the phone off for a few hours. This was so they’d be able to call the other family member they intended to extort, with no risk of them checking with the kidnapee if they were in fact kidnapped or sitting at home.

When fraudsters get vocal

As for “using your relative’s voice”, well, no. Don’t panic. People may be inclined to start worrying about deepfaked voices winging their way across the airwaves. In these cases, the victim is almost certainly listening to generic voice recordings which very quickly fade out. The relatives don’t stay on the line, or make conversation, or say anything beyond muffled screams after the call begins because they’re not there.

The scammer is very unlikely to have anything sounding identical to your supposedly kidnapped relative. It’s the adrenaline shot of the call and sheer panic making people think that their relative is pleading down the phone line. This, combined with the spoofed phone number, is enough to make it all seem real while it’s taking place.

How to spot the signs of a virtual kidnapping scam

There’s a strong social engineering component to these attacks. Scammers trawl websites, social media, and more, to obtain names of families and individual family members. They do much the same thing for phone numbers, which is how you end up with a call which looks like it’s from your relative and from their phone number. With this in mind, we have some tips and suggestions for you:

  • Revisit your online presence, and lock down or delete as appropriate in relation to locations, names, and phone numbers.

  • Avoid posting travel dates and locations, which can add some fake legitimacy into a scammer’s phone call.

  • Family members should have a password which allows you to confirm someone actually is in some kind of serious danger.

  • It used to be that these scams were almost exclusively steered towards wire transfers. As you can see from the above story, those payment requests are now moving into the realm of being fully digital.

There are other tips online sourced from law enforcement, mostly in relation to asking to speak to your supposedly kidnapped relative, trying to contact them by other means while the scammers are on the line, and slowing the situation down to allow you to try and contact the kidnapee in the first place.

Yes, this is an awful scam. However, it’s definitely not new, people only think their relative is being heard down the line, and there are many strategies and safeguards in place to get one step ahead of the virtual kidnap scammers.

Stay safe out there!


Christopher Boyd

Former Director of Research at FaceTime Security Labs. He has a very particular set of skills. Skills that make him a nightmare for threats like you.