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Shutdown Cell Phone Virtual Kidnapping Scam Warning

by Brett M. Christensen


Circulated warning claims that people are receiving calls from criminals posing as phone service provider staff who ask them to shut down their cell phones because of an impending update. According to the message, while the victims are thus out of contact because their phones are shut down, the criminals launch a virtual kidnapping scam on their families. 

Brief Analysis

Virtual kidnapping – that is, a scam in which criminals attempt to extort money from people by pretending that they have kidnapped one of their family members – is certainly real. The specific “shut down cell phone” scenario described in the warning is plausible. However, credible reports that describe actual cases in which the scenario was used remain elusive.


Beware cell phone virtual kidnapping scam

This happened in Mumbai……. .

I cannot stop myself from sharing this with all of you. It all started when I received a call from someone claiming that he was from my mobile service provider and he asked me to shutdown my phone for 2 hours for 3G update to take place. As I was rushing for a meeting, I did not question and shutdown my cell phone.

After 45 minutes I felt very suspicious since the caller did not even introduce his name. I quickly turned on my cell phone and I saw several missed calls from my family members and the others were from the number that had called me earlier – 3954380.

I called my parents and I was shocked that they sounded very worried asking me whether I am safe. My parents told me that they had received a call from someone claiming that they had me with them and asking for money to let me free. The call was so real and my parents even heard ‘my voice’ crying out loud asking for help. My parent was at the bank waiting for next call to proceed for money transfer. I told my parents that I am safe and asked them to lodge a police report.

Right after that I received another call from the guy asking me to shutdown my cell phone for another 1 hour which I refused to do and hung up. They keep calling my cell phone until the battery had run down. I myself lodged a police report and I was informed by the officer that there were many such scams reported. MOST of the cases reported that the victim had already transferred the money! And it is impossible to get back the money.

Be careful as this kind of scam might happen to any of us!!! Those guys are so professional and very convincing during calls. If you are asked to shut down your cell phone for updates by the service provider, ASK AROUND! Your family or friends might receive the same call.


Detailed Analysis

This widely circulated warning message describes a case in which a person was tricked into turning off his cell phone so that criminals could prey on his family via a virtual kidnapping scam. The message circulates via email and social media and has also been posted on many blogs and security related websites.

According to the message, the person received a call from someone who claimed to be from his phone service provider who instructed him to shut down his cell phone for two hours so that an upgrade could be implemented. He complied, but after some time, he became suspicious and turned his phone back on only to discover several missed calls from worried family members who believed that he had been kidnapped. The message claims that, by ensuring that the victim’s cell phone was turned off, and thereby making him hard to contact, the criminals were then able to effectively pretend to his family that he had been kidnapped and ask them to pay ransom money for his release. The warning suggests that many such cases have been reported to police.
While the example included above claims the incident took place in Mumbai, alternative variants name other locations. The name of the service provider and the scammer’s phone number also vary in different versions. Other than these small variations, the different versions of the message are virtually identical. The warnings have circulated since at least early 2010.

The type of crime described in the warning. which is usually referred to as “virtual kidnapping”, is certainly real. Incidents of such crimes have been widely reported. In such crimes, the perpetrators attempt to panic people into giving them money by pretending that they have kidnapped a family member and are holding him or her hostage.

Typically, the criminals contact chosen victims by phone and demand money lest the family member be killed or harmed. Often, the victim can hear screaming or crying in the background and, fearing that their loved one is in real danger, they quickly pay up as requested.

Of course, the supposed kidnapping never actually takes place and the background screaming or crying is performed by one of the criminals themselves. A 2008 New York Times article about the tactic reports:

MEXICO CITY — The phone call begins with the cries of an anguished child calling for a parent: “Mama! Papa!” The youngster’s sobs are quickly replaced by a husky male voice that means business. ” We’ve got your child,” he says in rapid-fire Spanish, usually adding an expletive for effect and then rattling off a list of demands that might include cash or jewels dropped off at a certain street corner or a sizable deposit made to a local bank.


The twist is that little Pablo or Teresa is safe and sound at school, not duct-taped to a chair in a rundown flophouse somewhere or stuffed in the back of a pirate taxi. But when the cellphone call comes in, that is not at all clear.

Other reports indicate that criminals often use stolen cell phones to contact the phone owner’s family and falsely claim that he or she has been kidnapped. Because the calls come from the supposed victim’s own cell phone, the family may be more inclined to believe the scammer’s claims and pay up.

Scammers also use information they have gleaned from stolen documents and wallets or hijacked online accounts to try to convince family members that they have really abducted someone. Thus, the scenario outlined in the above warning message is plausible. That said, I have not found any credible reports about a virtual kidnapping attempt that uses the particular modus operandi described in the message.

The warning does not include any details about the incident that can be convincingly verified. What does seem clear is that the “shut down cell phone” method of virtual kidnapping is certainly not as common and widespread as suggested in the warning message.

In truth, the comparative effectiveness of the method described in the warning seems somewhat questionable. Many people would not believe the scammer’s initial claim that they were required to shut down their cell phone due to an upgrade. Users who are even reasonably familiar with how cell phone systems operate are likely to view a request to shut down their device with suspicion. Thus, quite often, scammers who use this particular method may be giving the game away at the outset by alerting their potential target that skulduggery is afoot. Using stolen cell phones would seem to be a more effective strategy, and indeed, this is the method of perpetrating virtual kidnapping scams that is most widely reported.

Nevertheless, as a cautionary tale, the core advice in the message is worth heeding. Any call that claims that you must shut down your phone so that your provider can roll out an upgrade is very unlikely to be legitimate. Service providers are not about to call individual users to tell them about an upgrade, nor is the implementation of such an upgrade likely to depend upon whether or not users have their devices switched on. 

Importance Notice

After considerable thought and with an ache in my heart, I have decided that the time has come to close down the Hoax-Slayer website.

These days, the site does not generate enough revenue to cover expenses, and I do not have the financial resources to sustain it going forward.

Moreover, I now work long hours in a full-time and physically taxing job, so maintaining and managing the website and publishing new material has become difficult for me.

And finally, after 18 years of writing about scams and hoaxes, I feel that it is time for me to take my fingers off the keyboard and focus on other projects and pastimes.

When I first started Hoax-Slayer, I never dreamed that I would still be working on the project all these years later or that it would become such an important part of my life. It's been a fantastic and engaging experience and one that I will always treasure.

I hope that my work over the years has helped to make the Internet a little safer and thwarted the activities of at least a few scammers and malicious pranksters.

A Big Thank You

I would also like to thank all of those wonderful people who have supported the project by sharing information from the site, contributing examples of scams and hoaxes, offering suggestions, donating funds, or helping behind the scenes.

I would especially like to thank David White for his tireless contribution to the Hoax-Slayer Facebook Page over many years. David's support has been invaluable, and I can not thank him enough.

Closing Date

Hoax-Slayer will still be around for a few weeks while I wind things down. The site will go offline on May 31, 2021. While I will not be publishing any new posts, you can still access existing material on the site until the date of closure.

Thank you, one and all!

Brett Christensen,