Cyber kidnapping: What it is and how to avoid it

Jan 3, 2024, 7:00 PM | Updated: May 29, 2024, 12:09 pm

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SALT LAKE CITY — Cyber or virtual kidnapping is a term we’ve heard a lot this weekend. The case of a missing foreign exchange student last week garnered statewide attention and brought this type of crime into the spotlight.

Cyber kidnapping is a variation of virtual kidnapping. Criminals contact family members or friends and claim to have a loved one in captivity, asking for ransom money to set them free.


How does it work?

In this variation, a “cyber kidnapper” contacts a victim, ordering them to isolate themselves. They make the victim take photos and videos of themselves to prove they’re in captivity. Then, the criminal sends those to the family as an incentive to send the money.

Retired FBI special agent Karl Schmae told Dave and Dujanovic this isn’t new, but isn’t very common in the U.S.

The FBI said scammers typically target people visiting other countries. Schmae said it’s easiest to do while traveling. Being in an unfamiliar location gives an edge to the scammers – making it easier to lie about the person’s whereabouts.

Utah Valley University instructor and cyber security expert Brandon Amacher said cyber kidnapping is a case of sophisticated emotional manipulation.

“It is a facade of kidnapping which is just done by manipulating both parties into thinking that the other is in danger,” Amacher said.


Scammers often take advantage of immigrants and foreign exchange students.

Amacher said they emotionally prey on people with cultural inexperience who are far away from their families. Criminals make the stakes so high it’s hard for people to ignore, just in case the threats are true. 

Schmae said this type of crime is getting worse as technology progresses.

“One of the speculations is that criminals are starting to use AI,” he said. “There’s software out there that people could use to … clone the voice. Now in the past, you could just have another female screaming in the background and for most of us, that’s going to be enough.”

Staying safe from cyber kidnapping

Amacher said to avoid these kinds of scams, it’s important to solidify communication with family abroad. He said people coming to the U.S. should have a plan set in place to avoid this kind of drastic situation, like safety questions to ask your family to make sure they’re safe.

That gives families a way to verify whether or not the threats are happening.

“When you’re traveling internationally, always have backup plans in place with your loved ones.”

Amacher said those backup plans can include information about primary and secondary means of communication. In case of more serious situations, Amacher said to give loved ones information about police stations or consulates near the area they’re staying.

Skepticism, Amacher said, is another line of defense. He said it’s safer to assume that these messages aren’t real than to play into the scammer’s threats. But you should still report them to the police.

Schmae said the FBI has also put out several warnings and tips about how to avoid the phenomenon.

“One of the tips that the FBI does put out is that if you are traveling, avoid posting this on social media because scammers can see that,” Schmae said.

“If you are the person getting that phone call, first, take a breath, okay? Don’t panic, which is hard given what you’re hearing. But take a breath, think about what’s going on and contact law enforcement. Because there are so many variations of this scam that’s out there,” Schmae said.

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Cyber kidnapping: What it is and how to avoid it