Scammers are identifying missing persons through social media posts – the starting point for extortion schemes, the FBI said in an advisory.
The scheme is designed to get quick ransom payments from the families of missing persons “who are manipulated to believe their loved one has been abducted, is at risk of being abducted, or is in imminent danger,” the FBI said.
The scheme typically plays out as follows.
Through social media, scammers first gather information about the missing person and family, lending believability to their ransom demands.
Then they typically get the family’s telephone numbers on social media and use third-party calling or messaging applications to make ransom demands to hide their real telephone number.
The scammers may then claim the missing person is ill or injured. This amps up the urgency of the situation with the goal of pressuring the family to make a quick ransom payment.
The criminals typically request between $5,000 and $10,000 in ransom.
The FBI cited some examples. In one case, after a mother reported her 13-year-old girl as missing, the family used social media to ask for help and provided their telephone number. Scammers, claiming to have kidnapped the daughter, used the number to demand ransom. The girl was eventually returned home on her own, the FBI said.
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In another incident, a family reported an 18-year-old woman as missing and local media picked up on disappearance. Then the family posted a request for information to social media, along with a telephone number. Scammers, claiming to have abducted the woman, contacted the family. “One of the scammers claimed to be the victim and spoke to family members, saying they were drugged, threatened with physical assault, and taken to another state. Subsequent investigation revealed the missing woman was never abducted and was eventually found unharmed,” the FBI said.
The FBI has warned about similar ransom scams in past advisories such as virtual kidnapping, where a victim is told a family member has been kidnapped.
The virtual aspect of the scam involves staging a scene either on the phone or via social media that tries to convince the victim that their child has been kidnapped, FBI Albuquerque office said.
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Time is of the essence in these scams because criminals need the victim to react quickly out of fear before the scam is exposed. “They coerce victims to pay a quick ransom before the scheme falls apart,” the FBI said in its outreach bulletin.
The FBI encourages victims to contact a local law enforcement agency or a local FBI field office or file a complaint online with the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center.