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Today: April 20, 2024

Virtual kidnapping scams torment families for money

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LA Post: Virtual kidnapping scams torment families for money
Harlow Calloway
April 03, 2024

Parents' worst fear is being exploited in a terrifying new scam: Virtual kidnapping scams. This is when criminals call parents claiming they have abducted their child and demand ransom money. It all starts with a scary call saying the child has been taken away. The scammers make it seem convincing by using personal details about the kid gathered from social media profiles. They then issue a ransom demand, typically around $2,000 to be paid via untraceable methods like gift cards or cryptocurrency. Even though there is no actual kidnapping, the psychological torment inflicted is severely damaging. As this unscrupulous racket spreads across the country, raising public awareness becomes critical to protect families.

These virtual kidnapping scams are the work of organized crime rings who deploy teams of skilled liars and manipulators. They carefully study the lives of targeted children through public online information - social media posts, sports team rosters, school websites and more. Any details about friends, activities, appearance or routines are extracted to create a credible illusion of genuinely having the child captive. The more specific personal information the callers can recite, the more real the threat appears to panicked parents.

The scam usually starts with an alarming call designed to induce instantaneous anxiety and fear. "A voice says he has kidnapped your daughter and demands that you pay a ransom or she'll be killed," recounted Special Agent Brian Herrick of the FBI's Portland office. The caller rattles off details about the alleged victim like their school, friends, interests and schedule gleaned from internet sources. This barrage of accurate information about the child's life makes the bogus kidnapping seem plausible.

Once the hooks of terror are set, the ransom shakedown begins in earnest. The perpetrators know a terrified parent will likely do anything if they genuinely believe their child's life hangs in the balance. Ransom demands are purposefully set outrageously high yet potentially attainable, usually in the $1,800 to $2,000 range. Payment must be made quickly via hard-to-trace methods like gift cards, wire transfers or crypto to cover the extortionists' tracks.

The entire psychological ploy hinges on stoking fear through manufactured urgency. Callers absolutely refuse to allow any contact with the child, insisting immediate payment is the only way to secure their safe release. They weave an intricate fictional narrative to isolate and control the victim through panic and helplessness. Even requesting proof of life could supposedly further jeopardize the child's wellbeing according to the ruthless callers.

This virtual abduction scheme preys on the most primal of parental instincts in an unconscionable way. "It is emotional terrorism designed to override logical thinking through sheer panic and desperation," said Dr. Maya Greenberg, a trauma psychologist. "The fear of endangering your child's safety reduces most victims to a state of unquestioning compliance." The psychological torture inflicted can have severely damaging effects even in cases where no kidnapping ever actually occurred.

While the abduction itself is imaginary, the cruelty of these scams means the emotional distress is lamentably real. Many victims struggle with crippling anxiety, guilt and fractured trust for years after the events. Some parents require extensive therapy to process the harrowing experience and regain a sense of their children's security. Increased public education is crucial to safeguard more families from falling prey to these malicious virtual kidnappers holding parents' worse nightmares for ransom.

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