By Julie Grant

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PITTSBURGH (KDKA) — A warning from the FBI Office in Pittsburgh about a scam so believable you’re conned before you realize what’s happening.

It’s a “virtual kidnapping scam.” Victims are tricked into believing a loved one has been kidnapped and are extorted for ransom money.

It’s an extortion scheme so real you believe your loved one is in harm’s way.

“They make it as realistic as possible. Their goal is speed and to scare the individual,” said FBI Assistant Special Agent in Charge Chad Yarbrough.

Criminals frighten you with a fast and seemingly urgent call, pretending to have kidnapped your loved one.

“They even go to lengths to have a female in the background screaming or yelling,” said Yarbrough.

They trick their victims into wiring money as a ransom payment into an off-shore account.

“They do try to ramp up your emotions and prey on your emotions and the speed,” said Yarbrough.

Believe it or not, social media plays a role in this extortion scheme. According to the FBI, these criminals will go online and try to gather as much information as they can from social media. That is how they appear to be familiar with your loved one and convince you that they physically have your loved one.

“Obviously the more you post on social media, the more they’re able to exploit,” said Yarbrough.

Yarbrough recommends never posting anything that shows your location away from home. For many reasons, it’s always safest to hold off on sharing those vacation pictures until you return. The bid red flags with the virtual kidnapping scam are:

1) international or “out of area” calls
2) pressure to make the transfer to an off-shore account
3) trying to keep you on the phone

“Usually these individuals who are scamming you will drop the ransom very quickly as time goes on,” said Yarbrough.

According to the FBI, the best thing to do is hang up the phone and call or text your loved one to verify their safety. If you truly believe your loved one is in danger, call 911 immediately. If you recognize the scam, report it to the FBI at www.IC3.gov or 1-800-CALL-FBI.

Hopefully, you won’t fall for it. Either way, the FBI wants to know about it.

“Each one can add up to a larger picture, so that does help,” said Yarbrough.