9 Warning Signs to Help You Recognize a Child Kidnapper

Child kidnapping is no joke, and is more common than we’d like. Around 800,000 children are reported missing each year, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC).

What’s worse, the NCMEC says 203,000 of those children are kidnapped by family members. That’s why kidnappers can be so hard to recognize; you might be related to them or know them in some way. And that’s pretty scary.

Luckily, there are some simple ways to recognize a kidnapper. No one has eyes around their heads, and children can be snatched up very quickly—while Mom is looking for something in her purse at the mall or Dad is taking a business call at the park.

Be vigilant of everyone around you. If you see something that looks a little sketchy, it probably is. We hope this list of warning signs can help you identify a potential child kidnapper, and encourage you to take action if you do run into this unfortunate situation.

  1. Bribery.

    By nature, kids are often very trusting, even towards strangers. And kidnappers know that—so often, they’ll offer a child candy, toys, or something else they’d want, as a bribe to get them to walk away with them or go to their car. Look at the child’s body language—you can probably tell if they know the adult. If they seem skeptical, or if they start walking away with this person, step in or call the police.

  2. An unfamiliar child.

    We typically associate kidnappers as adults, but sometimes experienced kidnapped will use other kids to help them in their process—e.g., get a child to go up to another child on a playground to get them to walk away with them. Chances are, your child will respond better to a kid than an adult. So if you see one kid taking away another, you might want to ask if they know each other and question where they’re going.

  3. An adult asking a kid for help from their car.

    How many times have you seen an adult pull over to ask a child for directions? Unless you’ve witnessed a kidnapping, probably not very many. Chances are, if a driver needs directions, he’ll refer to his phone, GPS, or call a friend. Any time there’s an adult speaking to a child from a car, this could be an indication of kidnapping.

  4. An adult asking a kid for help at all.

    Sometimes an adult will approach a child while they’re alone (e.g., on a playground) and ask if they can help them find their lost dog or help them unlock a car door. The child might not understand that these requests aren’t things they can actually help with and that they’re being lured in by a potential kidnapper.

  5. Specific language.

    Keep your ears peeled for certain words. If you’ve ever hear a child refer to the person their walking with as “Mister” or “Misses,” there’s definitely something sketchy going on. Children (or anyone for that matter) don’t refer to people they’re comfortable with in that way. Additionally, if you hear a child ask an adult “Where are we going?” in a nervous manner, this person might not be someone they trust.

  6. A screaming child.

    Of course, children scream and cry and sometimes parents aren’t going to console them if they’re misbehaving. However, there’s a certain instinct you might get if you see a child particularly struggling—maybe they’re hysterically crying and saying things like “Let go of me.” This could be a warning sign.

  7. Strangers acting as family.

    One of the most common ways people go about a kidnapping is to pretend they’re a family friend. Social media makes it easy to learn things about a family like a friend or relative’s names, where someone works, etc. Kidnappers might lie to a child, saying they’re their mom’s friend or that their dad is in the hospital and they were told to pick them up.

  8. Trying to gain trust with flattery.

    Sometimes kidnappers tell kids—mostly teens in this case—that they can make them famous or put them on the cover of a magazine if they come with them. However, more often than not, producers or photographers aren’t going to seek talent on the street, so if you witness this type of behavior, you might want to step in with questions for the adults.

  9. Playground circlers.

    Parents can usually tell if an adult looks a little sketchy on a playground—a big sign being they don’t have a child present. These adults might be observing who their next prey might be. In this case, take a picture of them. That way you can remember what they look like if you ever see them again. (This also might scare them away if they see you do it).

Don’t ignore this behavior if you ever find yourself in an unfortunate situation like this—take action. Have you ever witnessed any of these warning signs?