FBI Alert Number I-05142021-PSA
The FBI warns the public of scammers seeking to extort family members of missing persons. These actors identify missing persons through social media posts and gather information about the missing person and family to legitimize their ransom demands without ever having physical contact with the missing person.
The FBI defines this type of extortion as a range of telephonic coercion schemes for extorting quick ransom payments from the families of missing persons who are manipulated to believe their loved one has been abducted, is at risk of being abducted, or is in imminent danger. Additionally, the FBI defines social media as websites and mobile applications that allow users to create and share content or to participate in social networking, or to find people with similar interests.
While scammers’ use of social media to target victims is known, its use to extort vulnerable families of missing persons is lesser known. After identifying a missing person on social media, scammers research details of the disappearance, the missing person, and the missing person’s family. The scammers often obtain telephone numbers for the family members on social media and use third-party calling or messaging applications to make ransom demands to disguise their true telephone number. The criminal actor generally requests between $5,000 and $10,000 in ransom, with $7,000 requested in multiple instances.
FBI investigations indicate these scammers use social media or networks to identify, initiate contact, and gain access to families of missing persons. Generally, offenders do not offer proof of life. However, in one instance, an accomplice made telephone calls to family members claiming to be the missing person. Offenders often claim the missing person is ill or injured, adding to the urgency of the situation and putting additional pressure on family members to pay the ransom.
Since the onset of COVID-19 nationwide stay-at-home orders, law enforcement has received several reports of scammers targeting families who have posted on social media about their missing family member.
Although scammers used social media to identify victims prior to the pandemic, the effects of COVID-19 on families’ well-being are an added vulnerability and an additional opportunity for these actors to extort families of missing persons.
Over the past three years, the FBI identified an increase in scammers exploiting missing persons information posted to social media. The following are illustrative examples:
- In August 2020, a mother reported her 13-year-old girl as missing. The family used social media to ask for assistance and posted a personal telephone number, which individuals claiming to have kidnapped the daughter used to contact the mother, demanding ransom. The girl had not been abducted and eventually returned home on her own.
- In May 2020, a father reported his son missing to law enforcement. The child’s family created social media posts seeking assistance in locating their child, after which the child’s father received a text message demanding ransom.
- In May 2018, a family reported an 18-year-old woman as missing. Local media reported the disappearance and family members posted a request for information on her disappearance to social media, along with a personal telephone number. Individuals claiming to have abducted the woman contacted the family telephonically at the provided personal number. One of the scammers claimed to be the victim and spoke to family members, saying they were drugged, threatened with physical assault, and taken to another state. Subsequent investigation revealed the missing woman was never abducted and was eventually found unharmed.
If you believe you are or someone you know is the target or victim of an extortion attempt related to a missing person:
- Contact your local law enforcement agency or your local FBI field office (contact information can be found at www.fbi.gov)
- File a complaint online with the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center at www.IC3.gov
- Victims are encouraged to keep all original documentation, emails, text messages, and logs of communication with the subject. Do not delete anything before law enforcement is able to review it; and
- Tell law enforcement everything about the online encounters – it may be embarrassing for the parent or missing person, but it is necessary to find the offender. When reporting online scams, be as descriptive as possible in the complaint form by providing:
- Name and/or user name of the subject
- Email addresses and telephone numbers used by the subject
- Web sites used by the subject
- Description of all interaction with the subject
It is helpful for law enforcement to have as much information as possible to use while investigating these incidents; however, it is not required in order to receive assistance.
The FBI produced this public service announcement to provide awareness of the threat scammers targeting families of missing persons pose. This announcement seeks to increase awareness of criminal actor targeting schemes before families share details regarding a missing person on social media or social network platforms.
Source FBI Public Service Announcement