Winnipeg police warn of virtual kidnapping scam

At least two Winnipeg families have fallen victim to a new scam, which makes family members believe loved ones have been kidnapped and demands ransom.

Police say victims receive threats and ransom demands regarding loved ones abroad

Police say at least two families have paid the fake ransom demands so far. (Liderina/Shutterstock)

Winnipeg police are warning people about a scam that aims to extort cash by making families believe a travelling loved one has been kidnapped.

Police call the scam "virtual kidnapping," and say the scammers contact victims, claiming to have kidnapped a loved one and threatening to harm or kill them unless a ransom is paid. Usually, according to police, the family member is out of the country at the time.

"In fact, no one has been kidnapped, but the victims are threatened and coerced to believe they have, and quickly pay a ransom," a Winnipeg police release sent Saturday said.

According to the release, the scam is more common in the U.S. but Winnipeg police are now aware of two cases locally, which they say are the first in the city.

Police said the first Winnipeg case happened on Jan. 9, and the second the next day. "In both cases the victim wired funds to an out-of-country area code," according to the release. Police added the amount wired, in each case, was less than $5,000.

Toronto students went missing in 2017

Last fall, RCMP and Edmonton police said numerous victims in B.C. and Alberta were contacted by suspects claiming to be Chinese government officials. The victims were told they were implicated in crimes in China.

The incidents appear to be targeting female Chinese nationals, who are often coerced into a series of actions and told that failure to follow through will result in harm to their families.

At the same time, families in China are contacted by suspects claiming to be Chinese government officials who say their loved ones in Canada are being held against their will, leading to a demand for money.

In November 2017, three Chinese nationals studying in Toronto went missing for several days after they were targeted by a similar scam, police said.

Toronto police Const. Craig Brister told media the victims were "told they need to go into hiding, not to use their cellphones, not to contact their families and not to use any form of social media or the internet."

After that, he said, the scammer would call the victim's family members in China to tell them their relative had been kidnapped, with demands for a large ransom.

Old scam, new victims

An FBI website about virtual kidnapping says the scam has been around for two decades or more, but only recently started targeting English-speaking victims. Previous versions attempted to extort Spanish speakers in the U.S.

The FBI says in past cases involving U.S. citizens, the calls for ransom have come from Mexico.

"The scammers attempt to keep victims on the phone so they can't verify their loved ones' whereabouts or contact law enforcement," the FBI website says, adding the ransom demands are normally small due to rules around wiring money internationally. 

It is not clear if the cases in Winnipeg followed the pattern outlined by the FBI. 

The FBI website says people confronted with this scam should hang up immediately and try to contact their loved one. The agency advises against wiring the ransom, and says you should never attempt to deliver money in person. 

Winnipeg police are asking people targeted with this scam to call them at (204) 986-6222 or report it to the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre.