Building a Digital Defense Against Missing People Scams


You see it every day on Facebook or other social media platforms. A family member posts that their teenager has disappeared or senior parent has not returned from a trip out of the house. The goal, of course, is to crowdsource the missing person’s recovery.

Here’s where the fraudster can come in: 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 apps to call to make ransom demands. The demand usually ranges from $5,000 to $10,000, with $7,000 being a common amount.

Generally, offenders do not offer proof of life, although there is at least one instance where the scammer called the family pretending to be the victim. Offenders 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.

If you are the target or victim of an extortion attempt related to a missing person:

  • Contact your local law enforcement agency or your local FBI field office (contact information can be found at www.fbi.gov)
  • 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
    • Web sites used by the subject
    • Description of all interaction with the subject

If you are the victim of any online fraud, you should also report the incident to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center at www.ic3.gov or call your FBI local office.  

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