By Tristan Reed and Scott Stewart
During the weekend of Dec. 14, four individuals in the popular Mexican resort towns of Cancun and Playa del Carmen were targeted in a virtual kidnapping scheme. Only two of the victims knew one another, two Mexican nationals from Mexico City. The other two were a Mexican citizen currently serving in the U.S. Marine Corps and a Guatemalan woman.
According to news reports, an individual claiming to belong to Los Zetas called the Guatemalan woman, who had been staying at the Hotel Colibri Beach in Playa del Carmen. The caller threatened the woman and told her to travel to Cancun and check into the Hotel Parador there, where the U.S. Marine and the two other Mexican nationals were already staying under threats from the same criminal group. When she checked into the Parador, she found that her room was adjacent to two rooms containing the other three victims — the U.S. Marine in one room and the other two Mexicans in the other.
The criminals told the three Mexican nationals that the Guatemalan woman was working for them. They also instructed the Guatemalan to take more identifying information from the other victims, presumably to be used to contact the family or associates of the victims to demand ransoms for the victims' safe return. After a brief stay at the Hotel Parador, the criminals then instructed all four victims to move to the Cotty Hotel, also in Cancun.
At some point, the two victims from Mexico City decided to ignore the instructions of the criminals and reported the incident to the federal police. At that point the authorities responded, going to the Cotty Hotel and recovering the remaining victims. While the identity of the criminals involved in the scheme remains unknown, media reports allege that telephone numbers they used in the scheme correspond to a prison — not an uncommon occurrence in virtual kidnapping cases — in Tamaulipas state.
Virtual kidnappings are not a new threat in Mexico, or elsewhere, for that matter. Indeed, they have posed a persistent threat in parts of Latin America and in Asia for well over a decade now. However, like that of many criminal schemes, the manner in which virtual kidnappings are being conducted has changed as victims have grown wise to previous iterations of the tactic. It is therefore worthwhile to examine the newer forms of virtual kidnapping and to discuss some means to mitigate the threat.
A Psychological Game
As the name implies, in a virtual kidnapping, no actual abduction occurs. This means that, at its core, a virtual kidnapping is a psychological game in which the criminals put on a theatrical performance designed to instill fear in their target in order to coerce them into quickly complying with demands for cash. The more convincing the performance and the greater the fear they can provoke in the victims the better their chances of receiving a ransom for a kidnapping they never conducted.
From a criminal perspective, virtual kidnappings usually produce lower ransom payments than traditional kidnappings, but they have the advantages of being less-resource intensive for the criminals and of producing a quicker payout. If proper communication security measures are taken, it can also be very difficult for the authorities to identify and prosecute virtual kidnappers, so there is less risk involved than in a traditional kidnapping for ransom.
The factors that make virtual kidnappers' threats successful in Mexico (and elsewhere) are the existence of a widespread kidnapping threat, the lack of trust in the authorities and the presence of widely feared organized crime groups such as Mexico's Los Zetas.
Initially, most virtual kidnappings in Mexico involved contacting parents, telling them their children had been abducted and then coercing them into quickly surrendering a ransom before it could be determined that the child had not really been abducted. In some cases the virtual kidnapping gangs were quite sophisticated. One particular gang used the ruse of an iPod or Xbox giveaway at upscale Mexican malls to get information on kids that they would then use to contact parents when the children entered movie theaters or other venues where they would be asked to turn their cell phones off or where it would be difficult to talk on a cell phone, such as a noisy nightclub.
Other virtual kidnapping rings have used less sophisticated tactics and called people at random often from pay phones inside prisons and then attempted to use "social engineering" to gather information on the family to make threats. For these less sophisticated virtual kidnappers, virtual kidnapping is a numbers game. The more victims they target the more likely their scheme will succeed. In November 2013, U.S. authorities dismantled a virtual kidnapping ring in which members were operating out of Tijuana and San Diego. The virtual kidnapping ring conducted little to no research on intended targets. Despite such minimal effort, the group still netted approximately half a million dollars before authorities dismantled the operation.
Virtual kidnappers will first attempt to obtain as much knowledge as possible about a potential target, starting off with how to communicate with the target from a distance (this involves obtaining such information as a cell phone number or the room number of the hotel where the target is staying). The virtual kidnappers will then begin digging for more information on the target, including any identifiable traits; the names of friends, coworkers and family members and their contact information; and any other information that would help the virtual kidnappers appear more knowledgeable about their target. A target may unwittingly provide much of this information through conversations in public or by disclosing it under threats. Social media have long served as a vital tool for virtual kidnappers. In some cases criminals will even recruit informants at locations such as hotels to assist in their schemes.
With knowledge of the target, virtual kidnappers are armed to carry out their psychological game. By claiming association to a notorious crime group, virtual kidnappers seek to provoke substantial fear in their target. They often attempt to use personal information to make it appear as if they have been following the target and are able to cause physical harm should they choose to.
Over the past couple of years we have been watching a growing trend in which the victim (often a traveler or expatriate) is directly contacted and threatened and his or her behavior is manipulated (as in the Cancun/Playa del Carmen case discussed above).
In this newer style of virtual kidnapping, targets are often initially coerced into moving to a new location and either abandoning their cell phones or acquiring new ones. They are often asked to make withdrawals of cash from an ATM. Once the target has moved to a location chosen by the criminals and manipulated into breaking contact with the outside world, the criminals can then move onto claiming a false kidnapping, with the target's loved ones unable to make contact and unaware of the target's location. In this way the kidnappers can attempt to take money not only from the victim but also from the victim's family. By having the victim check into a hotel, the kidnappers forgo the need to actually abduct the person, maintain a safe-house and provide for his or her care and feeding.
This tactic has been used widely across Mexico. Recent examples include a U.S. citizen participating in an ironman competition Dec. 1 in Cozumel being victimized in such a scheme, a Spanish businessman being virtually kidnapped Dec. 7 in Monterrey and a Spanish dance band being victimized in October in a highly publicized incident in Mexico City. This type of virtual kidnapping, in which visitors to Mexico are targeted, has been a specific problem in Pacific coast resort towns such as Puerta Vallarta and Acapulco.
How to React to a Threat
Even though the target set and tactics are changing, the basic principles behind this type of kidnapping remain the same. It is a psychological rather than physical threat. Frankly, in a country such as Mexico or Guatemala, if a kidnapping gang wants to kidnap you they will simply do so. They will not call and threaten you. The fact that they are calling to make a threat is a good indication that they do not have the ability to act on the threat. Certainly, extortion is a valid concern in such places, but extortion demands are usually different in nature and fairly easy to distinguish from virtual kidnapping attempts.
Because of this, victims of virtual kidnapping plots are encouraged to try to separate the drama from reality and endeavor not to succumb to the psychological games the virtual kidnappers thrive upon. Potential victims are also urged not to comply with the caller's demands. If a person receiving a virtual kidnapping call is staying in a nice resort with adequate security, he or she should not check out and move into some seedy hotel just because someone demanded it over the phone.
Potential victims should also not get rid of their personal cell phones and stop all contact with the outside world. Actually, just the opposite should be done. In addition to locking themselves in their hotel rooms and ignoring all calls from the virtual kidnappers, potential victims should quickly formulate a plan and call for help.
Tourists and expatriates should immediately call the emergency number for their embassy or consulate and request assistance. The embassy or consulate will have trusted law enforcement contacts that can be dispatched to help. As we've previously discussed, an important part of planning a safe trip abroad is obtaining the contact information for a traveler's embassy or consulate in advance. Another important part of trip preparation is to research the environment being traveled to. If there is a virtual kidnapping threat, and a traveler decides to travel to that location anyway, he or she should be very careful to stay at a hotel with adequate security. Travelers should also take steps to ensure that they protect their personal information so that virtual kidnappers cannot use it.
If a business traveler receives a virtual kidnapping threat, he or she should contact the company's security director, who can also assist. If the traveler has a travel insurance policy that covers security assistance, the insurance company may also be able to dispatch help.
At the very least, one way to break out of a virtual kidnapping plot is for the traveler to call the airline to arrange an earlier flight out of the country and then arrange trusted transportation to an international airport, which is a secure location. This will cut a trip short, and may cost a little in ticket-change fees, but it is certainly preferable to enduring the sustained psychological trauma of the threats made by a virtual kidnapping gang.