Scammers targeting the families of missing persons, FBI says

El Paso News

EL PASO, Texas (KTSM) — Scammers are targeting families who post missing person information on social media, a new twist on an old scheme.

“Over the past three years, the FBI has seen an increase in this kind of scam, where they’re trying to exploit information that family members have put online,” said Jeanette Harper, public affairs officer at the FBI El Paso Division.

The FBI is warning the public of telephonic coercion schemes that extort quick ransom payments from families of missing persons after being manipulated to believe the fraudster can return the loved one.

“These families aren’t necessarily seeing the good in humanity,” said Harper. “They’re also bringing out the cruel and the scammers.”

These scams are carried out through social engineering by gathering information that families post online, oftentimes including specific details about the missing person.

“A lot of vulnerable family members have pushed out a lot of vulnerable information in attempts to get the community and the public to help them,” Harper said. 

Scammers can then research the details of the disappearance and use third-party calling or messaging services to make bogus ransom demands.

“It’s just a quick hit to try to get $,5000 or $7,000 and then move on while the family members are trying to cope not only with being the victim of a scam but also trying to find their missing loved one,” Harper said.

In August 2020, for example, a mother reported her 13-year old daughter missing, and the family used social media posts to ask the community’s help. The posts included the family’s telephone number that was used to make false claims of abducting the girl for ransom. The FBI says the girl was not abducted and eventually returned home.

The FBI says that scammers take advantage of vulnerabilities like the rush of hope and excitement a family member might experience from a real or fake claim of knowledge of a missing person. 

“Stay calm,” said Harper, “they’re trying to instill fear and panic.”

To report extortion scams: 

  • 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
    • Websites used by the subject
    • Description of all interaction with the subject

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