FBI warns parents about virtual kidnapping cases during spring break

ST. LOUIS - A warning for parents whose children are traveling over spring break.

The FBI reports this time of year is prime time for virtual kidnapping threats. In some cases, families have paid thousands of dollars, fooled into thinking loved ones were in danger.

FBI Supervisory Special Agent Christopher Johnson said his St. Louis office is familiar with the crime, in which someone calls, claiming to be a kidnapper. Using personal information likely obtained through social media or the internet, the person will reveal facts about the family and threaten harm unless a ransom is paid.

A St. Louis County woman received such a call about her 21-year-old daughter last year.

The call was convincing and frightening: “We have your daughter.  She`s duct taped in the back of this van.  I`m going to kill her.  If you hang up on me she`s dead.”

The woman ended up wiring close to $5,000 to the con artist when her daughter was safe.

Special Agent Johnson said prosecuting virtual kidnapping cases is difficult. The key, he said, is awareness.

“If you get this call, you need to try to confirm, while you’re on the phone, with your loved one to see if they are in fact, ok,” he said. “Most people don’t realize you can text somebody while you’re on your phone, especially if it’s a cell phone. Or you can reach out for somebody that’s around you to let them know, can you get ahold of whoever the loved one is, that they’re calling about.”

Planning is also important, Johnson said. Make sure loved ones provided multiple phone numbers – including contact information for friends, a hotel, or set up a time to communicate.

Nearly one in five virtual kidnapping cases are successful – in other words, the criminals get the money and are never caught.

Johnson said it is critical to contact authorities if you receive a virtual kidnapping call.

“Hoax or not a hoax, that way, we can help do a more thorough job in the investigation to try to stop this from happening again,” he said.