“I have your son and I’m going to f*ck him up,” a voice on the other side of the phone said.
For two hours one afternoon in early April, 61-year-old Joseph Baker and his wife Maggie drove around their city, listening to every demand of their son Jake’s supposed kidnapper.
“If you call the police, I will know and kill him,” he threatened, according to the Bakers. “I have a scanner.”
The caller ID on Joseph’s smartphone display said the call was coming from his son’s number. The couple had no reason not to believe the man on the other end of the line, who knew personal details about the family, including where they lived.
(The victims’ names and other details have been changed for their protection.)
They complied with his orders, purchasing two pre-paid debit bank cards, relaying the card numbers to the kidnapper and filming themselves flushing the evidence down the toilet.
When Joseph hung up, he called the police, who rushed to his son’s house along with a team of medics. But they found Jake home, unharmed. It was all a scam.
“It was so real,” Maggie Baker told CNN Business. “People will do anything to help a loved one. … I keep thinking through things now. Is there anything I could have done to stop this?”
Stories like the Bakers’ are increasingly common due to the influx of spoofing, a form of robo-calling that lets a perpetrator alter what number it appears they are calling from. They can then use that number, combined with personal information they find online, to fake a situation like a kidnapping.
How scammers fake a kidnapping
“We’ve seen an uptick in virtual kidnappings in the past few years because the crime is lucrative and there’s not a lot detection from law enforcement,” Matthew Horton, the FBI’s international violent crimes unit chief, who’s been closely following virtual kidnappings, told CNN Business. “It’s a quick way to make money — and it’s a lot easier to conduct a virtual kidnapping than a real one.”
Spoofing involves a call placed from any voice-over-IP service, such as Skype, or a specialized app that allows users to enter any host number they want — whether it’s a made up number, a number in their address book, or one from the White House. It’s so easy, anyone could do it.
Skype declined a request for comment.
Some of these scams also come from pre-paid phones that are not registered and not attributable to a person.
The incidents can leave victims bilked out of up to thousands of dollars and emotionally shaken. Because a scammer knows a potential victim is more likely to pick up if they recognize the caller, they might enter a number they think is in their target’s address book.
It’s hard to quantify how common the scams are. The FBI said it does not collect national statistics on virtual kidnappings because “most victims tend to report the crime to their local law enforcement department or not report it at all.”
In some cases, victims say they hear screams in the background pretending to be from a daughter or son. Another spoofing scam targets parents and grandparents who are asked to bail their child out of jail.
But Horton noted the majority of virtual kidnapping scams that he sees aren’t targeted: “Many of these cases are done at random based on cold-calling numbers, even hotel rooms or wealthy area codes, and using social media posts to search for more information.”