After a brave North County family shared their story about a virtual kidnapper scamming them out of $10,000 for their child’s ransom payment, NBC 7 decided to take a deeper look into the extortion tactic that South Bay police say is all too common.
It's a nightmare for any parent.
Virtual kidnappers learn personal information about families, like their loved ones’ names, study their routines, and pounce on them when the time is right. They use the victim’s fear of what could possibly happen to their family member against them and prevent them from checking in on their whereabouts.
“They're usually safe in bed or they're out enjoying the evening, not even realizing that this virtual kidnapping is going on,” Chula Vista Police Department (CVPD) Sgt. Michael Varga said of the people virtual kidnappers claim to have taken from their families.
Sgt. Varga says his department responds to virtual kidnappings nearly three times per month. He added they could happen more than they know because some people are too embarrassed to report them, or they're still too scared to report them after they've paid up.
So if you do get that nightmare phone call, what should you do?
Varga said the first red flag is the unfamiliar number.
“If you don't recognize the number or it comes up with no caller ID, that should be the first clue,” he said.
The FBI told NBC 7 actual kidnappers often use their victims’ phones to call for ransom.
It’s best to just not pick up, but if you do, Varga says you should stay calm and try to make sure your loved one is safe and call 911.
Law enforcement also recommends refraining from posting on social media when you're going on vacation because would-be criminals will use that information to manipulate your family.