A terrifying scam gaining steam – and media attention – involves preying on your clients’ emotions to cheat them out of thousands of dollars by using their family as the bait.

The con, known as “virtual kidnapping,” begins when a frenzied caller claims one of the victim’s loved ones has been kidnapped and is in danger. The caller, sometimes speaking in a foreign accent, says the family member will be harmed if a ransom is not paid immediately. In some cases, the first voice the victim hears is supposedly that of the kidnapped loved one.

“It sounded like my daughter,” Tracy Holczer, a mother of a 14-year-old, told the Guardian, an English newspaper. “She has a very distinct voice … When you’re terrified, your brain just sort of stops working. It didn’t even occur to me it could be a scam.”

Holczer – who left her daughter, Maddy, at home 30 minutes earlier – was driving to a meeting in suburban Los Angeles when she received the call from a number she didn’t recognize.

She was startled when a distraught girl yelled “Mommy, please help me! Someone grabbed me, and I’m in a van. I don’t know where I am!”

Holczer said a man then demanded she transfer money and threatened to kill Maddy if she didn’t comply. He also claimed he would know if Holczer attempted to contact anyone for help. The 48-year-old mother could hear screaming in the background during the call.

“He said they are happy to send body parts,” Holczer recalled.

After making three separate money transfers totaling around $3,300, Holczer learned her daughter was safe at youth group. The two-plus-hour ordeal left Holczer with a severe anxiety attack, and weeks after the March incident, she was still experiencing emotional distress.

A Google search showing results for mid-September into early October showed media reports involving virtual kidnappings in at least five states including Arizona, California, Colorado,Kentucky, and Virginia.

Shawn Mickschl, a pastor in Nicholasville, Kentucky, believed the scam was real for about 30 seconds.

A caller with a Hispanic accent claimed he had Mickschl’s daughter and demanded a ransom.

“The person said ‘Help, Daddy, they’ve got me,’ and I just froze,” Mickschl told the NBC affiliate television station in Lexington, Kentucky.

But the father kept his head and told the caller he’d get him anything he wanted if he could tell him his daughter’s birthdate. When the fraudster couldn’t answer correctly, Mickschl hung up and hustled to find his daughter safe at school.

The incident prompted Kentucky Attorney General Andy Beshear to issue a scam alert, warning that “‘virtual scammers’ may use personal information the family or victim share over the Internet or on social media to make the scam appear credible.”

“Victims of virtual kidnappings are scared for their lives, and so are their families,” said FBI Special Agent Brian Wittenberg, who has worked several of these cases. “Since the threat is continuing to evolve, the FBI wants to raise public awareness to help individuals from becoming victims.”

Inform your clients about this scam, which is becoming more prevalent, and consider sharing the FBI’s tips to avoid being scammed.

Anyone who receives a call from a fraudster alleging to have kidnapped a family member should:

  • Remain calm and try to slow down the situation. Ask to speak with the victim.
  • Ask questions only the supposed victim would know, such as the name of a pet. Never share personal information. In Tracy Holczer’s case, the perpetrators started using her daughter’s name when she mentioned it after hearing screams.
  • If the alleged victim speaks, listen carefully to the voice.
  • Try to call, text, or contact the so-called victim through social media. Ask to have the victim call back from his or her cell phone.
  • Buy time by repeating the caller’s request and explain you are writing down the demand. Also tell the person you need time to meet the demand.
  • Avoid challenging or arguing with the caller, and maintain a low, steady voice.

FBI crisis negotiators suggest anyone who receives a ransom call should immediately try to contact the alleged kidnap victim – then contact local law enforcement or call the nearest FBI office.