A prosecutor is warning New Jersey residents about a new scam that cruelly preys on people's concern for their relatives.

It's called "virtual kidnapping" and it's "sweeping the nation" and New Jersey, Hunterdon County Prosecutor Anthony P. Kearns III says.

Kearns said at least two cases of virtual kidnappings have been reported in Hunterdon County this summer. He suspects far more cases have gone unreported.

The scam involved a phone call in which a stranger demands ransom to release a loved one who supposedly has been kidnapped.

Fortunately, there was no kidnapping. But the unsuspecting person on the other end of the line is tricked by realistic sound effects of a person being beaten and the caller's knowledge of personal information identifying the supposed kidnapped victim or their relative.

Authorities say such personal information is often gleaned from social media accounts.

The scammers made off with large sums of money that the victims were instructed to wire from a local Walmart to a Walmart in Puerto Rico.

“These scammers are unscrupulous people who exploit the emotions of families that believe a loved one has been kidnapped," Kearns said Friday. "It is our intent to educate the public to prevent any further victims from falling prey to these heartless individuals.”

The FBI says anyone who receives a call claiming that a relative has been kidnapped to hang up and call that relative.

Such scam calls usually will not allow the person to speak directly to the kidnap victim, will try to keep the person on the line for a long time to prevent them from trying to call the victim, and will insist that the ranson can only be paid through a wire-transfer service.

Sergio Bichao is deputy digital editor at New Jersey 101.5. Send him news tips: Call 609-359-5348 or email sergio.bichao@townsquaremedia.com.

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