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Understanding virtual kidnapping and potential charges

On Behalf of | Jun 16, 2023 | Criminal Defense

Virtual kidnapping is nothing new. However, the increasing access to artificial intelligence (AI) has added a whole new level to it.

First, let’s look at what virtual kidnapping is. It typically involves tricking someone into believing that a loved one has been kidnapped and is about to be harmed or killed. The goal is to get them to pay a ransom before taking the time to determine whether they’re even missing. In reality, no one has been kidnapped.

Sometimes, virtual kidnapping is a numbers game

According to the FBI, virtual kidnapping cases at first primarily involved people in Mexico calling Spanish speakers in the southwestern part of the U.S. Then, as one FBI agent describes, “criminals were no longer targeting specific individuals….Now they were choosing various cities and cold-calling hundreds of numbers until innocent people fell for the scheme.” 

Of course, in most cases, people can quickly confirm that the loved one in question is safe. Maybe they’re even there with them. However, if you’re calling a large number of people, eventually a call pays off.

Since no one is actually kidnapped, those who are caught in a virtual kidnapping scheme aren’t charged with kidnapping. However, they can be charged with wire fraud for using the phone to obtain money by illegal means, and sometimes with other offenses.

How AI has made these calls more realistic

As AI has become more accessible, it’s become easier to convince people that a loved one has been kidnapped. In targeted cases, a person’s voice can be simulated to convince a parent, spouse or other family member that they’re with the caller. If the person isn’t quickly reachable, a loved one can be pressured into sending money electronically because they fear that they’re in imminent danger.

Those who engage in virtual kidnapping may feel like they aren’t really hurting anyone – particularly if the person who has sent the money is wealthy. However, it’s crucial to remember that it is nonetheless a serious crime. If you’re facing charges involving virtual kidnapping, it’s crucial to have experienced legal guidance to protect your rights and present your case.