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An old, cruel scam gets a scary new update: Don’t fall for “virtual kidnapping”

by Jess Szabo’, Arts Writer


The term “virtual kidnapping” has been a feature of both true crime and crime drama shows for years. It previously described a situation in which the relative of a wealthy person conspired with others to pretend to be kidnapped in order to extort money from the one they knew to have a lot of it. 

Today, “virtual kidnapping” refers to a particularly cruel and frightening scam that may be used on anyone of any income level. Here is how the situation typically plays out: 

Your phone rings. The number on the screen belongs to somebody you know. You pick up, expecting your family member or friend to launch into one of their usual topics of conversation, or remind you of a family event, meeting, or appointment. 

To your shock, your coworker, friend, or loved one is frantic. In a terrified voice, they explain that they have been kidnapped, are being harmed or threatened with harm, and need you to help save them. When you tell them that you will call the police immediately, they insist that the only way to intervene is to send the ransom money the kidnappers demand. 

Of course, your first instinct is to do whatever needs to be done to save the person. You suspect that the call may be a hoax. You seem to have heard of a similar hoax before. But this is not one of those situations where you can afford to err on the side of caution. You  need to do whatever you can to help, even if it is sending money to a stranger. 

But this is the last thing you should do. Never send money or share financial information, no matter how frightened you feel, or how real the situation may seem. 

The person on the phone will never be your friend, coworker, family member, or whoever else they appear to be. Scammers now have the ability to both clone phone numbers, making it look as though their call is coming from  somebody you know, and the ability to clone voices. 

According to YouTube anti-scam content creator “ThioJoe,” a scammer only needs about thirty seconds of a person speaking to effectively clone their voice, and a voice sample is not that difficult for them to obtain. Video greetings posted on social media, outgoing messages on voicemail, and recordings made and posted on a work website  are all sources the scammer may use to clone someone’s voice along with their number. 

There is also a simpler, more low tech version of the scam known as “virtual kidnapping.” In this version, the scammer simply calls people, claims to be holding someone in their life for ransom, and demands the recipient of the call pay to save their friend, coworker, or family member’s life. To add authenticity to the scam, a second scammer will be in the background pretending to be the victim. This version of the scam has been previously called the “grandparents scam,” as calling grandparents pretending to be a grandchild in trouble was an especially popular path for the scammers to take. 

The scammer’s goal will be to keep you on the line long enough to convince you to send them money. They may quickly begin saying things that seem to prove the situation is real in order to achieve this goal. Do not believe them. The scammer may also keep a copy of your voice to use in a future scam. 

Don’t be frightened into believing the situation is real because the supposed “victim” or their supposed “kidnapper” knows personal details such as parents and kids’ names, pets’ names, favorite hangouts, the names of stores the person shops at regularly, favorite foods, or hobbies. The scammer who claims the victim was taken from the parking lot of her favorite place to shop for clothes simply scrolled back on her facebook feed and saw some pictures of new outfits with “My Spring 2019 haul!” or “Look what I got this time” as descriptions. Somebody claiming to have already contacted other family members only had to get their names from the person’s friends list. 

Some articles about virtual kidnapping suggest asking the caller questions only the real person would know the answer to. However, this may not be as effective as it sounds. The scammer likely did their research on social media or work sites, so anything your friend, coworker, or family member may have posted on one of these sites, or anything someone else may have mentioned in comments, would be readily available to a scammer who did a few hours of research before making the call. There is also the danger of slipping and giving the scammer new information they can use in a future scam, or giving them personal information about yourself or your friend. 

The only safe course of action is to immediately hang up the phone without a word. Once you are no longer in contact with the scammer, you can call or text the person they pretended to be or pretended to kidnap directly. This won’t stop the scam, but it can give them the chance to warn others on their contact lists. And it will put your mind at ease that the person truly is safe. 



This article was previously published on the website “Artist Cafe 315.” Jess Szabo’ is an arts writer, novelist, and writing teacher from Utica. Read more of her work at 

Jess Szabo
Jess Szabo
Jess Szabo' is a novelist, writing teacher, and content writer for Utica area artists. Her online workspace can be found at

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