Scamwatch: virtual kidnapping

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Stay one step ahead of the fraudsters with our series of articles giving you the lowdown on the scams they use to trick people out of their hard-earned cash - and how to avoid being taken in by them.

This week, the virtual kidnapping scam that's holding New York to ransom and could arrive in the UK at any time.

How does it work?
"We've kidnapped your family member, we're holding them hostage, and you need to pay us money right now if you ever want to see them again."

That's the terrifying phone message hundreds of people in the US have received over the past year.

The number of actual kidnappings hasn't spiked, though. Instead, victims are being targeted with a "virtual kidnapping" scam designed to defraud people out of their hard-earned cash.

According to the FBI, those who receive the calls are usually ordered to stay on the phone until the money has been wired to them via a transfer company such as Western Union.

And by the time victims have realised that the call was a hoax, the criminals behind the scam have disappeared with the cash.

How can I avoid being caught out?
The FBI is urging anyone who receives a call from a supposed kidnapper to insist on speaking to the hostage or hostages if possible, and to ask for a physical description of those taken if not.

It also recommends trying to contact the supposed hostages by social media or mobile phone to check if they are ok, while buying time by claiming to be writing down what the "kidnapper" is saying.

It does, however, advise against arguing with the caller, at least until you know for sure that the threat is not a real one.

I've been defrauded. What should I do?
The FBI wants anyone affected by this scam in the US to contact it or the police as soon as possible.

If you are taken in by a "virtual kidnapping" scam in the UK, meanwhile, you can report the fraud to the police via Action Fraud on 0300 123 2040.

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