Last night at 10:30pm, I had sleepily turned off the news when the phone rang.
At that time of night, my heart stops a little and confusion set in all the more, especially when the caller ID looked as if I was calling myself.
Curious, I answered. It was “Microsoft” to tell me that my system had been compromised and that in two hours my system would be shut down unless I followed the instructions. I did not even wait to hear the “Press the button to speak with an operator” part before hanging up.
They called again today, but I was on the other line and could not answer to listen. Persistent.
Typically when I am curious, after answering, I immediately mute the call so they cannot hear anything on my end. More typically, I do not answer any calls that I do not recognize the caller’s number. This time, they caught me in a weak, exhausted moment.
Since most people will now not answer calls from phone numbers they do not recognize, Caller ID spoofing has taken the lead.
Caller ID spoofing is when it appears that you are being called from your own number, from someone you know, or from an institution that you recognize. It is an attempt to get you to answer the phone so it can continue its deception, as in my case, the old Microsoft compromise fraud.
This is dangerous in and of itself, but I then read a friend’s Facebook post this morning and urgently wanted to share it with you. This Caller ID spoof was taken to a whole different level – Virtual Kidnapping. You must share this with others. It is a true story that happened in Charlotte, NC. I am sharing it with permission.
“This afternoon, my dad received a call from my cell phone number while at work. When he picked up, the guy on the line said he had kidnapped me and demanded money. At first, my dad didn’t believe it was real.
But then the man on the phone had my name, my dad’s name, my mom’s name, and more information. He also was calling from what appeared to be my cell phone, so my dad immediately took him seriously thinking I was in danger. I can’t imagine being in his shoes.
Over the next hour, the man kept my dad on the phone and aggressively instructed his every move. He kept him from contacting police or anyone. He then brought my mom into the mix and demanded they drive to multiple drugstores to buy MoneyPak cards, give him the numbers, scratch out the identifying information and flush them down the toilets at the CVS. After this went on for an hour, he said he had left me tied up at my address.
I checked my phone at about 5:30pm to find 7 missed calls from my dad and him calling repeatedly. When I called him back, he was frantic and asked where I was. After talking through what happened, he told me they were already about halfway to my house and that the police were on the way.
The police presence alone was eye opening — multiple cop cars, a fire engine, medical teams, etc. They assumed they were showing up to a kidnapping after all. We quickly straightened out what was going on and waited on my parents to arrive.
I can’t even begin to describe how heartbreaking it was to see my parents like that. To see their car speed down the street, blow past a stop sign, park crooked on the street and jump out sobbing… it’s the worst. And it hurts to even write it here.
The money is gone. It’s over. We’ve filed police and FBI reports, and we know nothing will likely come of this. But we want to share our story in case it helps anyone. No one should go through this. The things we see on the news about these scams can happen to anyone.”
You can read the emotion in the story. It was very real.
Here is the hard part – it all started because it looked like the kidnapper was using the daughter’s phone, giving credence to his story. It has happened all over the country. Truth be known, the callers may not even be in this country.
Virtual kidnapping is illegal and is considered extortion. The consistent threads in the stories are:
- A loved one is in danger, threatened with violence or death.
- Instructed to purchase prepaid cards, like MoneyPak and give them the numbers over the phone.
- OR, in larger cases, wire amounts to another country or a money drop.
- They attempt to keep the victim on the telephone the entire time.
- There is a great amount of personal knowledge of the family. One other incident kept various members of the family busy, so that they could not answer the phone to verify they were okay. Sometimes they threaten they have kidnapped a child.
So, how can you prepare for this?
- Limit the amount of personal information displayed for the world to see on social media. I have written about this before, but those cute games of “someone play along and answer the personal questions” are answers often used in passwords, security questions, and so on. Be wise. Think before you answer.
- My friends on Facebook are truly my friends. A friend is someone I have shared a meal with. I get so many requests from so many people to be friends and I have no clue who they are. What a compliment that so many people want to be your friend, but how do you know that Facebook profile is that of a real person?
- Never answer a phone call that is your phone number displayed in the caller id. A phone does not call itself. If you answer, you let the caller know it is a viable number. I typically never answer a call now that does not display the name of someone I know or expect to call. We can see from the story above, that answering unknown numbers is now not safe.
- Never give any personal information to a caller, even to supposedly verify your account number, to anyone . You can call the phone numbers you have for your various accounts.
- The FBI suggests having a family “code word.” If someone calls you and they use the code word, then you know they are in trouble. If a “kidnapper” calls and says they have kidnapped your loved one, then tell them to ask the victim for the code word. If they say no, or give some other excuse, then hang up and call the police immediately. In some virtual kidnapping cases, the “kidnapper” had the “loved one” get on the phone. The “loved one” was hysterical so the person being extorted for ransom could not really tell if it was their loved one or not.
- Phone numbers can be spoofed to look like they are from anywhere, even the IRS, FBI, police department, or the courthouse. There is nothing we can do to combat this. There are apps that will stop spam calls (Robokiller) but nothing will stop Caller ID spoofing except for knowledge and common sense. Of course, you will answer the call of a loved one but do NOT panic. Know your family code word. And know that the court will not call and tell you there is a warrant out for your arrest. No one valid will ask you to send in prepaid cards for payment.
- Share the first six points with everyone in your family so they will know, including older adults. These plots prey on older adults. Make it a point of multiple conversations.
Again, the threat of the phone call feels real. And it happens. What if you get such a call?
- The FBI states that in most cases, “the best course of action is to hang up the phone.” Do not say anything. Just hang up.
- Do NOT say any family member names. If the “kidnapper” says they have your grandson, ask “what is his name?” In some cases, less sophisticated extortions, they do not know your family member’s names. Never mention any names.
- Ask the “kidnapper” for the family code word. Again, if they say they cannot get it, just hang up.
- Never ever pay anything to anyone without validating the crisis. On cell phones, you can mute the caller and text the loved one in question.
- Remain calm. These extortions rely on panic, chaos, and emotion to be successful. They will say what they can to stir up all of your emotions. They may scream at you or you may hear screaming in the background. Do not be taken in. Remain calm. Keep your head thinking, not wrapped up in emotion.
- Never ever agree to pay anything. Stall. Say you need time to meet the demands and have him call you back.
- Call the police department. Report anything you can remember about the caller – accent, what they said, etc.
These ploys have been going on for years. They are becoming more brazen and it is being sustained because they have had success in their method.
Do what you can to protect your family. Just as in any other crisis possibility, it is best to have a plan BEFORE anything happens.
Make it a family conversation today.