A virtual kidnapping scam — a hoax where a family is falsely led to believe a loved one has been kidnapped for ransom money — targeted a parent of a Georgetown student Oct. 6, according to a campus-wide email sent by the Georgetown University Police Department on Oct. 7.
GUPD advised the Georgetown community to stay vigilant for potential future abduction scams of a similar nature and to immediately contact the police upon receiving a phone call asking for ransom payments.
The Georgetown parent targeted in the virtual kidnapping was able to establish contact through social media to confirm the student’s safety and did not pay the ransom.
Virtual kidnappings have been on the rise this year, according to the FBI. According to the FBI Washington Field Office, out of the 122 reported kidnappings involving U.S. citizens in 2015, 22 were virtual kidnappings. There have been 19 reported virtual kidnappings as of Sep. 26 this year.
The incidence of virtual kidnapping scams has been increasing in the Washington region, according to The Washington Post.
FBI Washington Field Office Public Affairs Specialist Nicole J. Schwab said the FBI believes a many virtual kidnapping cases are never reported to authorities.
“The F.B.I. believes that a significant number of virtual kidnappings are still going unreported,” Schwab wrote in an email to The Hoya. “Some victims either just hang up the phone and don’t report the incident, or they are embarrassed that they fell victim to the scheme.”
GUPD Chief Jay Gruber said the best way the university and its students can respond to reports of online extortion is to gain an understanding of the nature in which these scams are perpetrated to prevent students and their parents from falling victim to such scams in the future.
“The best thing to do is to be informed that these kind of scams exist; look at some of the information that I sent out to parents and students and remember some of those things if in fact you do get one of these phone calls,” Gruber said.
Virtual kidnapping scams typically have readily recognizable characteristics, including requests for relatively low amounts of ransom money, refusal to accept money through any other means aside from a wire transfer and insistence victims stay on the phone for an extended period of time, according to GUPD’s email.
The scammers research the individuals they have kidnapped, including places they often visit and their friends, in an effort to make the fake kidnapping appear realistic, according to Schwab.
“Many of the perpetrators obtain information on a victim by taking their cell phone, wallet, purse or address book, which will give them sufficient information to make phone calls to family members and friends of the victim in order to make ransom demands,” Schwab said.
According to 2015 FBI statistics on virtual kidnapping scams in New York City, scammers typically request between $600 and $1,900 and order the money to be delivered via wire transfer using companies like Western Union. Frequently, the money is wired to third parties in Puerto Rico.
The FBI treats each virtual kidnapping scam as a real kidnapping threat until it finds enough evidence to suggest the abduction is fictitious.
It is difficult for the FBI to take action against virtual kidnapping perpetrators, as the scams are often executed remotely and over untraceable burner phones, according to Schwab. Similarly, university police departments and local law endowment have little they can do to pursue scam perpetrators.
Scammers tend to target affluent areas such as the Beverly Hills region of California and the New York metropolitan area, which have both been disproportionately affected in the past few years, according to The Washington Post.
Nearby schools including the University of Maryland and George Mason University have encountered similar kidnapping scams.