File Photo – FBI Chicago | Photo: FBI

The Federal Bureau of Investigation in Chicago is warning the public about a virtual kidnapping scam targeting families in Illinois and across the United States.

Emmerson Buie Jr., Special Agent-in-Charge of the Federal Bureau of Investigation Chicago Division, issued the warning Friday.

Authorities say the scam has occurred for at least two decades but has recently evolved to exploit new vulnerabilities.

The current abundance of affordable international travel deals combined with the widespread use of social media has created a “fertile environment” for virtual kidnapping scams, the FBI said.

Virtual kidnappers scour the internet for targets by searching for social media posts by international travelers.

Scammers then contact the target’s loved ones claiming to have taken the target hostage.

Family members are coerced into paying a ransom quickly to ensure their loved one’s release. In reality, the target was never in physical danger.

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By the time the family members realize they have been victimized, the ransom money is gone, the FBI said.

Virtual kidnappers can be “very convincing,” often representing themselves as members of drug cartels or corrupt law enforcement.

“Victims may hear screams in the background of a call, but virtual kidnappers have been known to use recordings to sound more realistic. Virtual kidnappers often request payment via wire transfer and push victims to act quickly,” the FBI said.

FBI Chicago said it is important not to post news of travel dates and locations on the internet and be wary of providing financial information to strangers over the phone.

Hallmarks of a virtual kidnapping include calls that may not come from the kidnapped target’s phone, callers going to great lengths to keep victims on the phone and callers usually being unable to answer simple questions about targets such as what they look like.

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Additional indicators include ransom money only being accepted by a wire transfer service and requests for the ransom funds to be wired to multiple people in several small amounts.

Anyone who believes they are being targeted by a virtual kidnapping scam should call 911 immediately and ask that the FBI be notified.