Advice Technology

Virtual Kidnapping is Becoming a Big Problem

Written by Jack Robertson

Virtual Kidnappings are now becoming a very problematic situation in the 21st century. Virtual kidnapping is were a person will call a number saying they have kidnapped a son or daughter and need money in order for them to remain safe however the action of actually kidnapping someone has not taken place. Many of the people will use an app which allows the user to enter any host number they want such as a number that may be familiar to the person they are calling or a well-known number such as the Pentagon. In today’s world, it is easier to commit a virtual kidnapping then a real one. There has been such an uptick in virtual kidnappings because “the crime is lucrative and there’s not a lot detection from law enforcement,” says Matthew Horton, the FBI’s international violent crimes unit chief.

It is known as “spoofing” which “involves a call placed from any voice-over-IP service, such as Skype, or a specialized app that allows users to enter any host number they want”. Prepaid phones can also be used and are even harder to track down. However, many such of these virtual kidnappings are done at random “But Horton noted the majority of virtual kidnapping scams that he sees aren’t targeted: “Many of these cases are done at random based on cold-calling numbers, even hotel rooms or wealthy area codes, and using social media posts to search for more information.”

According to the FBI from 2017, this such criminal act originated in Mexican prisons with prisoners targeting Spanish speaking people in Los Angeles and Houston. Now they happen in English and Spanish across the country. “The incarcerated fraudsters — who typically bribe guards to acquire cell phones — would choose an affluent area such as Beverly Hills, California,” said FBI Los Angeles Special Agent Erik Arbuthnot. Social Media has also made it much easier for the criminals to gain personal information about people and therefore make the virtual kidnappings seem more real.

Different agencies have been slow to catch on and try to prevent this new type of crime but multiple telephone companies such as AT&T, Verizon and Sprint have begun to develop a tool called “Stir/Shaken” to identify and trace spoofing efforts. Other companies have pledged to so in 2019. Many of these same companies already offer free-to-download apps which auto block robocalls and spoofing efforts.

The challenge ahead according to Tarun Wadhwa who is the founder of Day One Insights and who closely studies issues regarding cybersecurity says “The challenge ahead of us is enormous: We have to convince people that what their eyes are seeing, ears are hearing, and mind is recognizing is not actually what’s going on, that’s an incredibly hard thing to do. And the better that gets, the more people will fall victim.”

Photo by Verizon

About the author

Jack Robertson