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Virtual Kidnapping: A New Threat for Parents and Kids Online

Titania Jordan talks about virtual kidnapping and what parents can do about this new scam.

Scammers, fraudsters, and criminals will do anything to get at your money. That includes preying on your fears, your vulnerabilities, and even your children with deception and psychological manipulation. One of their latest tactics is virtual kidnapping of children to extort a ransom from their terrified parents. But parents aren’t helpless in this. There are steps you can take to protect yourself and your kids from these dangers.


See Virtual Kidnapping with Titania Jordan for a complete transcript of the Easy Prey podcast episode.

Titania Jordan is a nationally-renowned technology, social media, and family expert, and her mission in life is to protect children, both online and in the real world. (In fact, she was a guest here once before to talk about internet safety for kids.) She is the Chief Parenting Officer at Bark, which helps protect almost seven million children across the country by using AI to alert parents to dangerous content and dangerous people hidden deep in their child’s digital signal. And it’s not just what she does professionally – she’s also a mom, so she lives the challenges of parenting in a digital world in real time. Her son is now in high school, and she didn’t know everything she knows know back when he was younger. But she’s using her mistakes to help other families avoid the same problems.

All of the mistakes that I made … I’m now using that to educate every family I can so they can avoid those same things.

Titania Jordan

How Virtual Kidnapping Works

Virtual kidnapping is any kidnapping that doesn’t involve actually moving a person from one place to another in real life against their will. You may have heard the term “cyber kidnapping” before, and it’s the same thing.

People often wonder how virtual kidnapping works. After all, if the criminal doesn’t actually take the person somewhere, how can it be a kidnapping? That’s where the deceit and manipulation of the scam comes in.

There are two different types of virtual kidnapping. The first is more common because it takes less effort on the part of the scammer. In this case, the scammer picks a victim, often a female college student. They probably don’t ever interact with the victim. Instead, they watch them for a bit, then contact their actual target – the victim’s parents. They claim to be a kidnapper who’s taken their child and wants a ransom. Sometimes they’ll even use AI to create a voice that sounds like the child as “proof” that they’ve been kidnapped. The scammer tries to scare the parents and convince them that their child will be hurt or killed unless they pay.

In another version, the scammer starts by reaching out to the victim. They use the psychological manipulation tactics to convince the victim that they they’re in terrible danger or at risk of a huge threat and they need to go somewhere in particular or self-isolate and follow the scammer’s instructions. In essence, the scammer convinces the victim to “kidnap” themselves. Then the scammer reaches out to the parents and says the same thing – they have their child and will hurt them if the parents don’t pay. They can even demand proof from the victim that they can then feed back to the parents to make the story more convincing.

A Case of Virtual Kidnapping

In January 2024, there was a national news story about a foreign exchange student who was the victim in a case of virtual kidnapping. The scammers pretended to be Chinese government officials and coerced him to hide in a tent in the woods in Utah. He spent some time living in fear and some risk of harm from the elements. His parents were living in fear for his safety, and ultimately lost tens of thousands of dollars to the scammer.

The scammers were talking to both him and his parents at the same time. They instructed him to do various things that provided evidence to his family that he had physically been kidnapped. The length these criminals will go to create stories and schemes to steal from people is honestly incredible. Thankfully, this victim of virtual kidnapping was found healthy and alive. That’s not always the case.

It’s pretty incredible … the lengths to which these bad actors will go to concoct stories and extract information, funds, and illicit media from these victims.

Titania Jordan

In this particular case, the FBI released a public service announcement letting people know that impostors pretending to be Chinese police are targeting the Chinese community in the US with these scams. That’s one specific demographic we know is being targeted. Parents with college-age daughters are another common target. But scammers are equal opportunity thieves. If you have a child, you and your child are at risk of being targeted for virtual kidnapping.

What Parents Can do About Virtual Kidnapping

What can we as parents or grandparents do to combat these scams? That’s the critical question. Overall, the key is to educate and empower ourselves, and then empower our children and grandchildren as they grow up in this crazy world. But there are a few steps we can all take today to make ourselves just a little more protected from these scams.

Have a Safe Word

The single best thing you can do to protect yourself and your family from virtual kidnapping scams also only takes a few minutes to set up. And that’s a family safe word. It should be a word or phrase that wouldn’t come up in normal conversation and that everyone in the family knows but doesn’t share.

The idea is that you can use the safe word to verify you’re really talking to your family member. If a kidnapper calls and says they have your son, ask them to put your son on the phone and then ask for the safe word. If he can tell you the word or phrase, you’ll know you’re really talking to your son. But if they can’t tell you the safe word, you’ll know it’s an imitator or AI-generated fake and you can safely hang up.

Virtual kidnapping often uses AI to imitate your child's voice - with a safe word, you can tell if you're talking to your child or a computer that cloned their voice.

As a bonus, this tactic can protect you from other types of scams, too. Scammers sometimes call parents or grandparents pretending to be in jail needing bail money or stuck somewhere and needing money to get home. If you have a safe word set up, you can easily identify if you’re talking to your real child or grandchild or to a scammer.

Some people think it sounds silly, or that it won’t happen to them. But really, what’s the harm? It only takes a few minutes to get it set up, and it could save you a lot of trouble and heartache.

Pay Attention to What’s Happening

In our information-overload world, it’s easy to tune out these kinds of stories, or even all the news. It’s okay to be selective about what information you take in. But pay attention to these kinds of stories, especially when they make national news like the foreign exchange student’s virtual kidnapping.

As tempting as it can be to completely disconnect from the news, you’re also disconnecting from the main method of finding out about new threats and what to watch for. And if you’re not aware or what tricks scammers are up to, you’re vulnerable to falling for them.

Don’t completely disconnect from what’s happening in the world because you don’t want to find yourself not in the know.

Titania Jordan

Track Locations, Especially of Young Kids

The question of location tracking is nuanced. You don’t want your children using publicly available location tracking, or to have where they are publicly available on something like Snap Maps. Imagine how much danger your child could be in if anyone could access their exact location at any time!

But mobile devices come with built-in location tracking, and it doesn’t have to be publicly available. Using some sort of tracking to know where your children are is essential. In the Utah incident, having their son’s real-time location could have helped his parents figure out where he was and get him rescued much sooner.

Keep Your Kids Safe Online

Parental control software is another great option to help protect your children. Many of them have the option to let you approve (or not approve) contacts in the first place, so a scammer trying to run a virtual kidnapping scam wouldn’t be able to contact them in the first place.

It’s also important to talk to your children about their digital footprint. They will have one, but they should know how important it is to have as little personal information out there as possible. Teach them not to use their real name, their school name, what year they’re graduating, their birthday, or anything. Scammers can use even small bits of information to run a successful scam. (Bark’s parental control software even has the option to alert you if your child is sharing their personal information.)

Any information that’s out there about you can be used against you.

Titania Jordan

Talk to Your Children About Virtual Kidnapping

Bark’s general stance is that these dangers are opportunities to have conversations with your child. Virtual kidnapping isn’t something Bark specifically deals with, but the principle is the same. No matter the online danger, you should have a conversation about what to do about it before it happens. That can also lead to a conversation about what your child is doing online, how they’re interacting with people, and what to do when they get scary phone calls.

If you don’t know where to start, something like the Easy Prey Podcast is a great opening. Listen with your kids and ask them what they think. You can also use news stories of times this has actually happened to have the conversation. It’s one thing to tell kids potentially scary stuff. There’s a strong chance they’ll dismiss it – it’s not going to happen, you’re just worried because you’re my parent. But if you share news stories about how it actually does happen, it makes it more real.

Also invite them into the planning process. Tell them you don’t want them to get caught in a virtual kidnapping, so you want them to work with you to make a plan and be safe. Not that it necessarily will happen, but if you have a plan, it’s less likely to. And it makes it more real for them.

What to Do If You Get Caught in Virtual Kidnapping

This scam is still relatively new and it’s still evolving. We know that it can be either a call directly to a victim’s loved ones without ever contacting the victim, or it can start with scare tactics targeting the victim and then move on to extorting their family. But the details and what story they tell are still changing.

If it happens to you, you need to go to law enforcement. They are the trained experts. They can help you discern what’s a real, genuine threat and what’s a virtual kidnapping scam. Scammers will say you shouldn’t go to the police and try to threaten you. But you need to report it no matter what. Titania isn’t an FBI negotiator or a kidnapping expert, so you shouldn’t take her opinions as legal advice. But if it happens to her, that’s what she’s going to do.

Even if you are scared by the kidnapper’s threats, you can still take action. Use an end-to-end encrypted messaging app like WhatsApp, Kik, or Signal to reach out to someone else. Tell them what’s happening and ask them to contact law enforcement because a criminal won’t be watching them.

Preparedness is Key

If you’re in the middle of that situation, terrified for your child, you’re probably not going to be thinking about end-to-end encryption – especially if you’re not tech-savvy. That’s why planning ahead and being prepared is so important. If you have a plan, you won’t need to make it up on the spur of the moment while your emotions are running high.

You have to regain control of your safety and your family’s safety to put bad actors in their place. There are stories of people getting called by someone who sounds like their daughter and were about to pay the ransom before their spouse asks if they’d called their daughter. They call their daughter and she’s perfectly fine. Titania once got a call from her father in the middle of the night, and he was shaken up because someone had called him and said they had his daughters.

Many people take precautions in their physical environment. It’s always a good idea to know where the fire exits are. Having a few days worth of water and some flashlights with batteries in your house is a smart plan. We take precautions in the real world to give us peace of mind in case something happens. But we also need to apply that to the digital world – especially when it comes to our kids, who spend eight hours a day or more connected.

The same precautions we take in the real world … we now need to apply to the digital world, too.

Titania Jordan

Virtual Kidnapping Mostly Targets Parents (For Now)

We’re not hearing many stories about virtual kidnapping scams calling kids and saying their parent or grandparent is in trouble and needs money. It’s mostly parents being targeted. But the day is coming where kids will be targeted with scams about their parents. But hopefully this generation will be more aware – they’re definitely already more skeptical.

One possible way to use this fact to engage your child in conversation is to flip the script. Explain that people your age are being targeted and ask what your child thinks you should do. Titania likes asking them to help you do a “safety audit.” You can have conversations about whether it’s a bad idea to use the same password for everything and other security topics.

The key is having strong relationships, having those conversations, and working through the problems together. And your child will probably have some good advice, too. Hopefully they have a good digital citizenship curriculum in school and they can teach you what they’ve been learning. But even if they don’t, they’re learning plenty of stuff online and can tell you about dangers you may not have heard of.

There’s always something new, and you’ve got to work together with your very savvy children to discuss and plan.

Titania Jordan

Trust Your Gut and Be Suspicious

Virtual kidnapping scams can cause a great deal of harm, both immediately and long-term. The same is true for other online scams that target kids and parents, such as deepfake porn and sextortion (which especially targets teen boys and sometimes goads them into suicide). It would be great if there was an easy list of five or six signs and if you see any of them it means you’re dealing with a scam. But there isn’t.

You can help protect yourself and your child by keeping personal information off the internet as much as possible. Your name or their name, where you work, where they go to school, even posting a photo of a birthday cake can give away a birth date. Any piece of information you make public, criminals can use.

The most important thing to remember is that if it feels off, it probably is off. Don’t hesitate to report it and ask for help. And if someone tells you that they have your child, find out first if they actually do. Don’t take a criminal’s word for it. Call your child and make sure you can confirm actual danger before you react. The chances that your child will get kidnapped for ransom are very low, especially if you’re not well-known as being very rich. The chances that someone will target you and your child with a virtual kidnapping scam is much higher. Just verify the danger is real before you act.

If you want to keep your kids safer, online and in real life, check out Bark at bark.us. They have an app, a product for schools, and a safer smartphone for kids. You can also connect with Titania Jordan on most social media, including InstagramYouTubeFacebook, and LinkedIn.

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