Kidnapping Part 4: Virtual Kidnapping
By TorchStone VP, Scott Stewart
As the California mother picked up her phone, she was startled by the sound of a crying child and alarmed when the child sobbed out, “Mom!”
As she was attempting to get her bearings, a harsh male voice came on the phone and told her that her daughter had been kidnapped.
Terrified, she cried out her daughter’s name.
The kidnapper then began to make threats and demanded a ransom as the child’s crying and screaming continued in the background.
Fortunately, the deeply shaken woman had the wherewithal to dial 911 on another phone quickly, and when she muted the phone with the “kidnapper” on it, the 911 operator told her not to transfer any money because it was most likely a scam.
Police were quickly dispatched to the daughter’s school to verify she had not been kidnapped—much to the relief of the would-be victim.
The mother’s quick thinking saved her thousands of dollars and kept her from becoming the latest victim of a virtual kidnapping.
Virtual = Didn’t Really Happen
As its name implies, virtual kidnappings involve no abduction whatsoever.
They are a brazen scam that plays on the fear of kidnapping.
Virtual kidnapping is a high-pressure psychological con in which criminals seek to instill sufficient fear to coerce their victim to comply quickly with a demand for money.
Unlike a physical kidnapping, in a virtual kidnapping, it is the person who receives the ransom call who is the victim—the person who has purportedly been kidnapped is in no danger at all.
The most successful virtual kidnapping gangs have mastered the theatrics required to instill a deep sense of fear and shock in the victim.
They seek to scare the panicked victim into quickly paying up and then hope to collect the ransom and disappear before the victim realizes that no kidnapping has taken place.
The more convincing the performance and the more fear the criminals can generate in their victim, the better their chances are of receiving a ransom.
The kidnappers use a series of threats and demands to keep the victim off-balance and in a state of panic.
The callers will often set a short payment deadline and strive to keep the victim on the phone as much as possible throughout the ordeal so that they can’t call the purported hostage or the authorities.
Often the callers will create background noise, such as a child’s screams, or threaten to disfigure or sexually assault the purported victim to either increase or maintain the pressure and panic.
Virtual kidnappers don’t have to arrange for safe houses to detain their hostages or for guards to keep them.
For the cost of a telephone call and with a little acting to convince a target family that a kidnapping has occurred, criminals can net thousands of dollars without the effort, resources, or risk involved in a physical kidnapping.
Virtual kidnapping schemes are very simple to carry out.
A small group of criminals can place dozens of calls in an hour, and all they need to pull off the crime is a disposable cellphone and an overseas bank account number to receive the ransom payments.
They are so easy to carry out for the seasoned practitioner that even inmates in places like Mexico and Guatemala have used smuggled cell phones to conduct lucrative virtual kidnapping operations while in prison.
Some of these gangs have netted hundreds of thousands of dollars before being shut down.
While the ransom amounts virtual kidnappers demand and receive are generally lower than those of a traditional kidnapping for ransom—sometimes only a few hundred or thousand dollars—the criminals can often get a much faster payout than in a traditional kidnapping.
While many of their calls end in failure, virtual kidnappers will quickly move on to a new target and thus operate at a much faster operational tempo than physical kidnappers.
Because of the use of burner cell phones, most virtual kidnappers are never apprehended.
But even when virtual kidnappers are caught, they do not face the type of harsh punishments that a physical kidnapper would since there was no violence or weapons involved in the crime.
Virtual kidnappings are thus less risky than physical kidnappings.
Variations on a Theme
Variations of virtual kidnapping scams have been around for a couple of decades now.
An early version of virtual kidnapping relied heavily on obtaining—and exploiting—personal information about the purported target.
In one such scheme in Mexico, the scammers positioned themselves outside the movie theater at a mall and offered young people a chance to enter a bogus contest for prizes such as cell phones or game consoles.
The youth were required to fill out bogus entry blanks for the contest, thus unwittingly offering up personal information such as addresses, phone numbers, and parent’s names and contact information.
The gang would also note details of what clothing the kids were wearing.
Once the movie started, and cell phone contact would be difficult or impossible, the criminals would call the target’s parents and claim that an abduction had taken place.
The scammers, armed with the personal information gained from the contest form, could describe in detail what the child was wearing and their presence at the mall, then demand that a ransom be paid immediately.
Because of the amount of information obtained during this process, this particular form of the scam was very convincing and successful.
Variations of this tactic are still employed by some virtual kidnapping crews, but it requires effort, as do virtual kidnapping schemes that involve extracting personal information from social media accounts.
Plus, schemes involving direct contact with someone are hard to conduct from prison.
Many virtual kidnapping gangs have experienced success by using an approach in which they start with less information but make a much higher volume of calls.
They leverage information elicited from the victim during the phone call for the con to succeed.
This approach is essentially a type of high-pressure social engineering.
Another type of virtual kidnapping frequently seen in Mexico involves a caller claiming to be from a drug cartel who contacts a victim staying at a hotel.
(These criminals often have an inside accomplice at the hotel who provides information on the guest.)
The caller tells the victim that they are under surveillance and order them to check out of their current hotel and into another one or risk being killed.
If the target cooperates, the caller will demand that the victim abandon their cell phone and sometimes acquire a new Mexican cell phone.
The victim will then be ordered to withdraw cash from an ATM.
Once the victim has been moved to the new hotel and has gotten rid of their cell phone, the criminals will often contact the victim’s family in a virtual kidnapping scheme to collect even more cash.
This scam is also low cost and low risk for the criminals since the victim pays for their own hotel room, and the gang does not have to pay for a safe house or guards for the hostage.
This type of virtual kidnapping has been successful against tourists visiting Mexico because of the very real kidnapping threat in the country, the distrust of Mexican authorities, and the fearsome reputation of Mexican drug cartels.
While many of the examples here are from Mexico, virtual kidnapping is by no means just a Latin American issue.
It is a global problem with criminals frequently making calls to other countries, as reflected by the frequent FBI warnings to Americans.
Keep Your Cool and Your Cash
The key to countering virtual kidnappers is to keep calm and avoid giving in to the panic they are attempting to induce.
In many cases, a quick check of the caller ID can prove helpful.
For example, a person calling from Honduras claiming to have kidnapped a person in New York or Barcelona is most likely a scammer.
It is helpful if the victim knows where their family members are.
If, like the California mom in the opening example, the caller claims to have kidnapped a child that should be at school, a quick phone call to the school can usually uncover the scam.
It is also important that potential victims do not provide any information about family members to the caller, especially since many scammers do not use an extensive information collection process.
As noted above, those criminals work like social engineering hackers and seek to glean as much information from a victim as they can to move their con forward.
If the victim does not surrender any information, it makes it very difficult for the scammer.
For example, last year, my mother received a call from a scammer who claimed to have kidnapped one of her grandchildren.
She quickly demanded to know what the child’s name was and when the caller could not provide a name, the con quickly failed, and the scammer hung up.
After reporting the incident to the police, my mom called me to tell me how she had shut down a virtual kidnapping scam by remembering what I had written about them in a piece several years ago.
And I was darn proud of my mom for keeping her head under pressure and outsmarting the criminals.
Victims should also actively demand proof of life from the kidnappers.
Almost all real kidnappers understand the importance of proof of life and will readily provide it.
By proof of life, I mean the victim should ask the purported kidnapper a question that only the family member supposedly abducted could answer.
This question should also be one that cannot be answered by reviewing the victim’s social media accounts.
If a purported kidnapper is unwilling to provide proof of life, they are very unlikely actually to have the hostage.
In such a case, they can also be expected to escalate the drama—yelling, screaming, slapping, etc.—if the victim continues to demand proof of life.
This reaction is an important indicator of a virtual kidnapping scam.
In the variation where an expatriate guest at a hotel is called and threatened, the guest must remain calm and not comply with the demand to leave their hotel to check into another.
Generally, the criminals want the victim to move from a nice resort or hotel with decent security to a seedy hotel with very little security.
Remember, if an organized crime group intends to kidnap someone, they will just do it.
They will not call and threaten the victim first, so this is an indication that it is a scam.
It is also very rare for an expatriate to be kidnapped from their hotel room, so the intended victim should not move from a relatively safe spot to one that is less secure.
Instead, the expatriate should secure themselves in their room as best they can and call their closest embassy or consulate for help.
Finally, like the California mother and my mom, people targeted by virtual kidnappers should call the police.
Any caller ID information, voicemails, texts, etc., from the alleged kidnappers, should be saved and given to the police as potential evidence.
While it may be difficult to identify, much less prosecute the criminals, it is nevertheless possible that the information you provide could be the key to solving several cases.
At the very least, the information you provide can help the authorities educate the public about the tactics used by the gang that targeted you.
Virtual kidnapping attempts can be terrifying, but they do not have to be financially costly.
By keeping their cool, victims can also keep their cash.
This report is the fourth in a series addressing different types of kidnapping and their motivations. The first part of the series, Understanding Kidnapping Threats, introduces different types of kidnapping. The second part, High-Value Kidnapping for Ransom, discusses how the required complex planning can be an advantage. The third part, Express Kidnapping, explores how these kidnappings do not follow the typical attack cycle.