Cybersecdn- This year, a phone scam has made its way to Texas, where it seems to be aimed at families who just moved there. This year, people in the U.S. have been falling for a new scam that uses AI to say that someone has taken their child. The National Institutes of Health calls this type of scam a “virtual kidnapping.” The scam usually starts with a phone call saying that a family member is being held captive or that they are being held “because he/she caused an auto accident, is injured, and won’t be able to go to the hospital until damages are paid.”
The caller will then give clear directions on how to get paid. As the scam gets better, AI voices are added to make them sound like family members. In April, CNN talked about a woman in Arizona whose daughter was not with her. Jennifer DeStefano’s 15-year-old daughter Brianna had been getting ready for a ski race. The call was from a secret number, and she answered it because she was worried about her daughter.
“Hello?” she asked over the speaker.
“Mom! Oh no, I messed up!” screamed a girl through tears.
“WTF did you do?!?” What did you do?!?” He asked DeStefano.
“The tone, the voice, everything sounded just like Brie’s,” she told CNN. “Then I heard a man say, ‘Lay down and put your head back.'” I think she’s being turned down the mountain, which happens a lot when people ski. So I began to worry.
As the cries for help went on in the background, a strong male voice began to give orders: “Listen here.” I’ve got your kid. You can call the cops or anyone else. I’m going to give her something so full of drugs. I will do what I want with her and then leave her in Mexico. You will never see her again.
When DeStefano called the police and was told that he needed to pay a $1 million ransom, the dispatcher at the Scottsdale, Arizona, Police Department knew the call was a scam.
The scam isn’t new, and AI has always been used to help with it. This kind of scam has been watched by the FBI for about twenty years. For this particular scam, the Bureau says it seems to have started in the Mexican jail system.
There is no information on how many people are hacked by virtual kidnappers each year because most people know it’s a scam and either hang up or don’t answer at all, so the scam isn’t recorded.
FBI Special Agent Siobhan Johnson says that most of the calls come from Mexico and are aimed at the southwestern U.S., where there are large Latino populations.
Johnson told CNN that a parent or family member who is upset about a call will often not check to see if it’s their loved one on the other end. Johnson said that the FBI has not seen an increase in the number of cyber kidnappings in this new age of AI. The Bureau does work to keep people informed about different types of scams they might fall for, though.
“We do not want people to worry. We want everyone to be ready. He said, “This is an easy crime to stop if you know what to do ahead of time.”
Shreveport, Louisiana’s KEEL 710 AM radio station heard about scams going on just to the west, here in Texas. Their staff said they got a call from Monterrey, Nuevo León, Mexico. People in Texas who had heard the call said it was in Spanish and that one of the callers gave them a location and said their child had stolen $50,000. They said they worked for drug gangs.
The FBI thinks that the old “business model” came from Mexican jails about ten years ago. It involved Mexican prisoners using burner cell phones to call at least one hundred possible victims every day.
According to the FBI, this makes sense because hackers only need one person who will pay them when they deal with such large amounts of money.
Criminals with a lot of free time but not much money, like those in jail, may find this to be well worth their time. According to reports from a few years ago, 80 cases that the Bureau looked into brought in a total of $87,000.
This year, scams like this have been seen all over the southwest and even as far north as Oakland, California.
The NIH says most of these calls can be identified with the following “tells:”
• Calls come in from a different area code, like a number outside of Puerto Rico (787), 939, or 856, or from a private or “unknown” number.
• The phone of the claimed kidnapped person doesn’t make calls.
• People will do anything to talk to you on the phone.
• Callers make it impossible for you to call or find the “kidnapped” person.
• The only way to send ransom money is through a wire transfer service.
Special Agent Johnson told that you can protect yourself from these con artists in the following ways:
If you want to protect your family from scammers, don’t post about planned trips on social media. He said, “Your mom can’t call to make sure you’re okay if you’re up in the air.”
Set up a password for the family. Someone can call you and say they have taken your child. You can tell them to ask the child for the password.
Give yourself extra time to make a plan and call the police if you get this kind of call. “Write a note to someone else in the house to let them know what’s going on.” “Get someone to call,” Johnson said.
If someone else is in the house while you’re doing a fake kidnapping, tell them to call 911 and tell the operator to call the FBI.
Do not give out personal or business information to people you don’t know over the phone. Virtual kidnappers often ask for a ransom in the form of a bank transfer, cryptocurrency, or gift card. Above all, don’t believe the voice you hear on the call. Someone in the room, a family member, or a friend should try to call a loved one for you if you can’t.