Imagine getting a phone call with a strange voice on the other end of the line, telling you that a loved one has been kidnapped and that you had better send money, or they will die.
But, in reality there is no kidnapping — it is a phone scam that is becoming so popular the FBI has issued a warning.
"A virtual kidnapping traditionally is an extortion," said Special Agent Erik Arbuthnot.
Arbuthnot said criminals are particularly targeting U.S. citizens traveling in other countries.
"It all starts with a phone call in a hotel," he said.
That call is typically from someone who claims to be in a drug cartel. They play on psychological fears and convince the tourists they are in danger.
Once the tourists believe they are truly being targeted by the cartel, they are told to leave the hotel, turn off their phones, and buy disposable phones, cutting off all contact to home
"And at that time they again begin extorting the victims in the U.S., the family members," Arbuthnot said.
Threats of violence and demands for money and are made to family stateside, who can’t reach out to their loved ones to verify that they are OK.
One victim spoke to NBC4 about her ordeal, but she asked not to be identified.
One woman was traveling in Tijuana with her husband when they received a call from a “virtual” kidnapper, who convinced them that they were in danger from a Mexican cartel.
"At that moment you think this is real, this is very real," she said.
She was so convinced something bad was going to happen, she unwittingly played into the scammers’ plan, calling her family and asking for them to cooperate and send money that could keep her safe.
In an FBI video, she can be heard asking her sister “You want me to die?”
The alleged kidnappers convinced her that her family needed to pay a ransom or she would be killed.
"Don’t talk to the cops whatever you do," she pleaded with her sister on the phone. "Deposit the money to them. Be very nice to them."
Arbuthnot, the FBI agent, said the scammers will turn from family member to family member, taking as much money as they can from as many people as they can.
"And when the mom has run out of money then they go to the dad, and the grandma, and the aunt," he said.
And the whole time, while the terror feels real, the person traveling is perfectly safe. They are not in harm’s way, just scared by the scammers’ threats.
Fortunately the family of the victim who spoke to NBC4 called the FBI, and learned more about what was happening.
"They said ‘she is in a hotel room and she thinks she is kidnapped but she is not,’" the victim’s sister said.
By listening to instructions from the FBI agents and staying calm, the victim’s sister prevented her family savings from being drained.
"(The scammer) said ‘OK, that’s it, I’m going to kill your sister,’" she recalled. "He hung up the phone. He never called again. And that’s when everything started going uphill."
A few hours later the couple was home.
"It’s coming home that you look back and you are like ‘This is hard … this is hard and it still hurts,'" said the victim. "People don’t believe how much it affected us and how real it felt at that moment."
The FBI advises that if you are traveling out of the country and get a call like this, the best thing is to just hang up, no matter how real it feels.
Call your family and law enforcement right away. And never turn off your personal cellphone.
For more on how to avoid becoming a victim of a virtual kidnapping, visit this FBI warning page.