Staying safe from "virtual kidnapping" scams

Posted at 11:27 PM, Feb 02, 2017

"They called right back and said that they actually had my son, and had a gun to his head," recalled Amy Nienhaus, victim of "virtual kidnapping" phone scam attempt in Tonawanda. "And that if I hung up and called the police, they would shoot him in the head."

When nightmare becomes reality. A phone call from an unknown person, claiming to have someone you love in the palm of their hand.

"They put enough of a sliver of doubt in my head that I needed to go and get my eyes on him," said Nienhaus.

So where was Nienhaus' son? Safe in school. It's a virtual kidnapping scam the FBI says can happen to anyone, not just this Tonawanda mom.

"If someone calls you and they know your kids names, they know what kin of car you drive, and they know where you are at one particular time, that makes the threat much credible, much scarier," said Maureen Dempsey, public affairs specialist for FBI in Buffalo.

Cyber security experts say those details are easy to find now a days, with a simple Google search. We're being tracked everywhere we go.

"So if you're on Facebook and you're checking in somewhere, you're leaking information, you're leaking your location and anyone with limited technology skills can find out where you are," said cyber security expert Arun Vishwanath.

It's easy to find information on who you are, but not so easy to track these scammers.

"The likelihood that the FBI is able to track down who these virtual kidnapping perpetrators are is very unlikely," said Dempsey. "They're very good at what they do... there's a reason why they continue to do it."

Because they've been so successful. The FBI says in 2015 and 2016 about 20% from 180 reported kidnappings in the U.S. were these kinds of scams. A number they think could even be higher because of unreported cases.

"Here in Western New York we've heard a few of them over the years," said Dempsey. "It's not very common up here in the north, it's much more common in the southern states."

Although Western New Yorkers haven't seen many of these situations, cyber security experts warn: beware of what you post online.

"Make sure you keep those privacy thresholds pretty high so that there's stuff about you that's not out there that's easy for people to get," said Vishwanath.

And the FBI say no matter what you do, don't send money to strangers. Because chances of you getting it back are not high.

"Unfortunately across the country, a lot of these cyber frauds and telephone frauds that are successful, very rarely can we recover any money... that money is long gone," said Dempsey.

Vishwanath recommends if you get a phone call from an unknown number, don't pick up, just let it go to voicemail. The FBI says if you do end up picking up, make sure you call 911.