Law enforcement agencies have been warning the public of virtual kidnapping schemes for at least two decades. This scam was once limited to Mexico and Southwest border states but has evolved so that U.S. residents anywhere could be potential victims.
Extortionists are preying on panic, fear, embarrassment and on the strength of familial bond. They know these emotions can make individuals more vulnerable to the extortion.
These types of cases are tragic. It’s not the amount of money involved; it’s the fact innocent victims are tricked into believing their loved ones are in danger and the horror and helplessness they feel as they scramble to secure what they think is their release.
Virtual kidnappings happen when a victim is told, over the phone, that his or her family member has been kidnapped. Callers, sometimes representing themselves as members of a drug cartel or corrupt law enforcement, will typically provide the victim with specific instructions to ensure safe “return” of the allegedly kidnapped individual.
These instructions usually involve demands of a ransom payment. Most schemes use various techniques to instill a sense of fear, panic, and urgency to rush the victim into making a very hasty decision. Instructions usually require the ransom payment be made immediately and typically by wire transfer, gift cards, peer 2 peer payment apps, couriers and rideshares, and recently in cryptocurrency. These schemes involve varying amounts of ransom demands, which often decrease at the first indication of resistance.
The amount paid by victims range from a few hundred dollars to thousands of dollars.
The perpetrators will often go to great lengths to engage victims in ongoing conversations to prevent them from verifying the status and location of the “kidnapped” individuals. Callers will often make their victims believe they are being watched and were personally targeted.
Until recently these virtual kidnapping calls were coming from Mexico—almost all these schemes originated from within Mexican prisons. We now see that these calls are originating from other countries as well as inside the United States.
To avoid becoming a victim of this extortion scheme, look for the following possible indicators:
Calls are usually made from an outside area code
Calls do not come from the kidnapped victim’s phone
Callers go to great lengths to keep you on the phone
Callers prevent you from calling or locating the “kidnapped” victim
Ransom money is only accepted via electronic payment means (peer 2 peer, wire, cryptocurrency, or gift cards)
If you receive a phone call from someone who demands payment of a ransom for a kidnapped victim, the following should be considered:
In most cases, the best course of action is to hang up the phone.
Try to slow the situation down. Request to speak to the victim directly. Ask, “How do I know my loved one is okay?”
Avoid sharing information about you or your family during the call. Don’t call out your loved one’s name.
Request the kidnapped victim call back from his/her cell phone
Listen carefully to the voice of the kidnapped victim if they speak and ask questions only they would know.
If they don’t let you speak to the victim, ask them to describe the victim (keep in mind what your family member has put out on social media)
Attempt to text or contact the victim via social media.
Attempt to physically locate the victim.
To buy time, repeat the caller’s request and tell them you are writing down the demand, or tell the caller you need time to get things moving.
Don’t directly challenge or argue with the caller. Keep your voice low and steady.
Anyone can become a victim of extortion, from soldiers/law enforcement personnel travelling to the El Paso/Mexico area, businessmen/women, to undocumented immigrants becoming trapped while coming to the U.S. in the hopes of starting a better life.
Acting Special Agent in Charge, FBI El Paso