MCFARLAND, Calif. (KGET) — The McFarland Police Department is warning residents of virtual kidnapping scams after the department received several reports involving virtual kidnapping.

Though virtual kidnapping scams have occurred for at least two decades, this scam has recently evolved to exploit new vulnerabilities, the department said. The current abundance of affordable international travel deals combined with the widespread use of social media has created opportunities for virtual kidnapping scams.

According to MPD, virtual kidnappers scour the Internet for targets by searching for social media posts by international travelers. Scammers then contact the target’s loved ones claiming to have taken the target hostage.

The department said that family members are then coerced into paying a ransom quickly to ensure the target’s release, but in reality, the target was never in physical danger. By the time the family members realize they have been victimized, the ransom money is gone.

MPD said virtual kidnappers can be very convincing, often representing themselves as members of drug cartels or corrupt law enforcement. Victims may hear screams in the background of a call, but virtual kidnappers have been known to use recordings to sound more realistic.

Virtual kidnappers often request payment via wire transfer and push victims to act quickly, the department said.

The FBI offers the following tips to help prevent virtual kidnapping scams:

  • Never post news of upcoming travel dates and locations online.
  • Discuss virtual kidnapping with family members prior to any travel.
  • Have a “password” that family members can ask for in an emergency to confirm that a loved one is really in trouble.
  • Be wary of providing financial information to strangers over the phone.
  • Attempt to call, text, or contact the alleged victim via social media. Request that the victim call back from his or her cell phone.
  • While staying on the line with the alleged kidnappers, try to call the alleged kidnap victim from another phone.

According to MPD, possible indicators of a virtual kidnapping include the following:

  • The calls not coming from the kidnapped target’s phone.
  • Callers going to great lengths to keep victims on the phone.
  • Callers usually being unable to answer simple questions about targets, such as what they look like.
  • Ransom money only being accepted via a wire transfer service.
  • Callers requesting that the ransom funds be wired to multiple people in several small amounts.

MPD said people can help prevent this scam by checking privacy settings on social media accounts and revisiting the information you publicize on those accounts. The more information available to the public, the more information scammers can use to convince you into believing a scam is real.

The McFarland Police Department asks anyone who believes they are being targeted by a virtual kidnapping scam to call 911 immediately to report the incident.