CRIME, POLICE + COURTS

Cyber kidnapping: What it is and how to avoid it

Jan 3, 2024, 7:00 PM | Updated: Jan 5, 2024, 9:33 am

an unknown call on a phone...

(Canva)

(Canva)

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.

We want to hear from you.

Have a story idea or tip? Send it to the KSL NewsRadio team here.

Crime, Police + Courts

Bountiful police car...

JOSH ELLIS KSLTV.com

One man dead after shooting in Bountiful

Officers in Bountiful arrived on the scene and found a man in his 20s with a gunshot wound. The man later died at the hospital.

1 hour ago

Ruby Franke stands with her attorney, Lamar Winward, at her sentencing on Tuesday. Her brother and ...

Jessica Lowell

Ruby Franke and Jodi Hildebrandt transferred to Utah State Correctional Facility

The two women will each spend one to 15 years at the facility for child abuse.

14 hours ago

Ruby Franke appears in a virtual court appearance....

Adam Small

Utah legislators hear from Kevin Franke on life coach regulation

Lawmakers hear from Kevin Franke about regulating life coaches. His ex-wife Ruby Franke and her partner Jodi Hildebrandt are in prison.

23 hours ago

Former president Donald Trump, Manhattan trial...

MICHAEL R. SISAK

With trial starting next month, Manhattan DA asks judge for a gag order in Trump’s hush-money case

The Manhattan DA's office asked that Trump be barred from making or directing others to make public statements about people involved in the case.

3 days ago

Kathy Brandel and her husband of 27 years, Ralph Hendry...

Sharif Paget, Chris Boyette and Polo Sandoval, CNN

Family of Americans believed dead after yacht allegedly hijacked in Grenada describe scene of violence

The family of two Americans who may have been killed in an alleged yacht high jacking in Granada hope the couple might be found alive.

3 days ago

Police tape drapes the crime scene on a trail behind Lake Herrick at the University of Georgia in A...

Ashley R. Williams, Raja Razek, Priscilla Alvarez, Isabel Rosales and Jaide Timm-Garcia, CNN

Questions remain in investigation of death of Augusta University student found on UGA campus

As the investigation continues into the death of an Augusta University student, officials confirmed the immigration status of a suspect.

3 days ago

Sponsored Articles

overhead view of a few aisles in a department store...

Big Deal Outlet

There is a Big Deal coming to Midvale: Local discount chain opens 8th store

If you love the thrill of finding good deals, check out the grand opening of Big Deal Outlet in Midvale from February 29 - March 2.

Mother and cute toddler child in a little fancy wooden cottage, reading a book, drinking tea and en...

Visit Bear Lake

How to find the best winter lodging in Bear Lake, Utah

Winter lodging in Bear Lake can be more limited than in the summer, but with some careful planning you can easily book your next winter trip.

Happy family in winter clothing at the ski resort, winter time, watching at mountains in front of t...

Visit Bear Lake

Ski more for less: Affordable ski resorts near Bear Lake, Utah

Plan your perfect ski getaway in Bear Lake this winter, with pristine slopes, affordable tickets, and breathtaking scenery.

front of the Butch Cassidy museum with a man in a cowboy hat standing in the doorway...

Bear Lake Convention and Visitors Bureau

Looking Back: The History of Bear Lake

The history of Bear Lake is full of fascinating stories. At over 250,000 years old, the lake has seen generations of people visit its shores.

silhouette of a family looking over a lake with a bird in the top corner flying...

Bear Lake Convention and Visitors Bureau

8 Fun Activities To Do in Bear Lake Without Getting in the Water

Bear Lake offers plenty of activities for the whole family to enjoy without having to get in the water. Catch 8 of our favorite activities.

Wellsville Mountains in the spring with a pond in the foreground...

Wasatch Property Management

Advantages of Renting Over Owning a Home

Renting allows you to enjoy luxury amenities and low maintenance without the long-term commitment and responsibilities of owning a home.

Cyber kidnapping: What it is and how to avoid it