Con artists use social media to find and target victims for various nefarious ends, including to extort relatives of missing persons

The United States’ Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has issued a warning about the threat posed by scam artists who are attempting to extort families using information about missing family members on social media. The fraudsters try to dupe the relatives of missing individuals into believing that their loved ones were abducted or are in imminent danger.

Scammers have a long history of using social media to seek out and target victims for various nefarious reasons, including extortion. However, using these platforms to extort the families of missing persons isn’t as widespread.

“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 Bureau explained.

The ransom demands made are generally somewhere between US$5,000 and US$10,000; however, the law enforcement agency has observed criminals request a US$7,000 ransom on multiple occasions.

Per the FBI’s investigation, it seems that the modus operandi of the scammers is similar, with social media being used to find, identify and contact the families of people who are missing. Usually, the fraudsters do not offer any proof of life, since they are making the whole situation up, but in one particular case, one of the criminals tried impersonating a missing person and calling their family. A common tactic employed by these crooks is to turn up the heat by purporting that the missing person is either ill or injured, which adds to the stress already felt by the family.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the problem, with the Bureau receiving several reports of scammers targeting families who have shared information about their missing relatives on social media platforms.

In its announcement, the FBI also described three cases of families being targeted using the information they shared on social media. One family posted information about a missing 13-year-old along with their phone number, which the scammer then used to contact the mother and demand a ransom. However, the girl was never abducted and ultimately returned home of her own accord.

Meanwhile, in another case where the family reported an 18-year-old woman missing, the grifters purporting to have kidnapped her went as far as to impersonate the victim and claim that she’s been drugged, threatened with bodily harm, and taken to another state. Again, the woman was never abducted and was eventually found unscathed.

These cases go on to illustrate the risks of oversharing personal information on social media and, even more importantly, they show that you also need to be wary about who can see your posts because you may never know who could be stalking you. To mitigate the risks, consider auditing your Facebook privacy settings and securing your Twitter account.

In somewhat related news, the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) announced late last week that it received a total of 6 million complaints of cyber-enabled crime over the course of its history spanning almost 21 years. While it took the IC3 almost seven years to record its first 1 million complaints, the most recent million was logged within only 14 months, bringing the tally to 6 million complaints in total.