Extortion Scams Targeting Families Who Share Missing Person Posts Are On The Rise

August 20, 2021

By a Biometrica staffer

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) issued a warning in May asking the public to be wary of scammers looking to extort family members of missing persons who share details on social media. The goal of these missing persons posts is, obviously, to crowdsource information and increase the chances of recovery. But, unfortunately, scammers are notorious for making use of any opportunity to rob people of their money, and a family that’s frantically looking for a missing member can be a vulnerable target.

There were 89,637 active missing person records in the National Crime Information Center’s (NCIC) Missing Person File as of Dec. 31, 2020, the FBI said in a report earlier this year. Juveniles under the age of 18 accounted for 34% of those records. If the definition of a juvenile is taken to mean those under the age of 21, then that ratio increases to 43%. In many of these cases, there may be a worried and anxious family member doing everything they can think of to help find their loved one.

In today’s digital era, the first step of that often involves sharing details of the missing person online across social media platforms. Many of us have probably seen such posts and stories shared on social media platforms, and most likely more than once.

When such posts are shared, a few unscrupulous individuals use it to gather information about the missing person, and research details of the disappearance and the missing person’s family. They obtain telephone numbers of the family members on social media and use third-party calling or messaging apps to call to make ransom demands. The demand usually ranges from $5,000 to $10,000, with $7,000 being a common amount, the FBI public service announcement says.

Generally, if it is a missing persons scam, there is no proof of life offered, according to the FBI’s investigations so far. But, in one instance, the Bureau said an accomplice of a fraudster made phone calls to family members claiming to be the missing person. The investigations also discovered that another aspect of the modi operandi of the missing persons scams was that the callers often claim the missing person is ill or injured, adding to the urgency of the situation and putting additional pressure on family members to pay the ransom.

For instance, in August 2020, a mother reported her 13-year-old daughter as missing. The family used social media to ask for assistance and posted a personal telephone number, which individuals claiming to have kidnapped the daughter used to contact the mother, demanding ransom. The girl had not been abducted and eventually returned home on her own.

Since the Covid-19 pandemic began, law enforcement has received several reports of scammers targeting families who have posted on social media about a missing family member, the FBI says. Although, to be sure, scammers used social media to identify victims even before the pandemic. What exacerbated the issue after Covid-19 hit was the stay-at-home orders and the general uncertainty caused by the pandemic, especially about the well-being of families. But this “trend” of scamming families of missing persons who post details on social media has been on the rise for the past three years now, the FBI added.

What, perhaps, is different when organizations like the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) get involved and share photos of missing kids on their Twitter handle, website, and elsewhere, is that there’s nothing much for scammers to build on. They don’t have direct access to the family of the missing person, which they might if the family members themselves share a publicly viewable post on social media otherwise.

Does that mean families should not post details about missing members at all on social media? That’s not what we are saying. It is important from the perspective of the family’s mental well-being that they share missing persons posts and, of course, from a logical standpoint, the more the eyes on the ground, the better the chances of a recovery. Even the FBI’s warning only says it seeks to “increase awareness of criminal actor targeting schemes before families share details regarding a missing person on social media or social network platforms.”

That said, what can be done if you believe you or someone you know is the target or the victim of such an extortion attempt?

  • Step one has to be to report it to your local law enforcement agency or your local FBI field office (contact information can be found at www.fbi.gov)
  • You can also file a complaint online with the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center at www.IC3.gov
  • The FBI encourages victims 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
  • Also, ensure you tell law enforcement everything about the online encounters. It may be embarrassing as the parent or missing person, but it is necessary to find the offender
  • While reporting online scams, give law enforcement descriptive responses. The form should also contain:
    – Name and/or username of the subject
    – Email addresses and telephone numbers used by the subject
    – Websites used by the subject
    – Description of all interaction with the subject

Meanwhile, the pandemic has led to unexpected “trends” when it comes to missing children. In May, we reported about how after Covid-19, there appeared to be a rising trend of kids being abducted during vehicle thefts after being left alone in vehicles. At that point, NCMEC data showed that in 40 such cases an AMBER Alert was issued. The AMBER Alert Program is a voluntary partnership between broadcasters, transportation agencies, law enforcement, and the wireless industry to activate an urgent bulletin in the most serious child abduction cases.

The problem of missing persons worsens when it comes to people of color and Indigenous groups. In 2019, children of color made up more than 40% of all missing person reports in the U.S. More specifically, African American children accounted for almost 37% of all reports on missing children under the age of 18. President Joe Biden declared May 5, 2021, Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons Awareness Day, calling attention to the “disproportionately high number of missing or murdered Indigenous people.” Several pieces of legislation have been enacted recently in an attempt to stem this crisis.

It’s important to note, in conclusion, that while law enforcement can find it extremely helpful to have as much information as possible when it comes to missing persons cases to conduct their investigations more efficiently, it is not required in order to receive assistance in the first place. Especially when it comes to missing kids, helping local law enforcement find them — and fast — is one of the FBI’s most important jobs. After all, these cases are sensitive in nature, and to paraphrase the FBI’s words, a missing person is never forgotten no matter how long they’ve been gone.