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Mar 10, 2016 | 08:00 GMT

9 mins read

To Stop a Virtual Kidnapping, Keep Your Head

VP of Tactical Analysis, Stratfor
Scott Stewart
VP of Tactical Analysis, Stratfor
Because they rely on emotional theatrics, virtual kidnappings can present victims with tough choices.

On March 3, a mother in Darien, Conn., received a terrifying telephone call. A stranger told her he had kidnapped her child and demanded that she stay on the phone with him, withdraw money from the family's bank account and wire it to an overseas account. Although rattled, the mother did not panic. She called the local police, who determined that her child was safe at school. The woman's cool saved her family thousands of dollars and kept her from becoming the victim of a virtual kidnapping scam.

South American gangs have been busy pulling off virtual kidnapping schemes in Spain and other parts of Europe. With increasing reports surfacing of virtual kidnappings targeting people in the United States and Europe, it is important to understand the problem and learn how to avoid becoming a victim of the scam.

Taking Advantage of Panic

As its name implies, a virtual kidnapping involves no abduction whatsoever — it is really more of a scam. At its core, a virtual kidnapping is a psychological game in which criminals put on a theatrical performance designed to instill fear and coerce their target into quickly complying with demands for money. The more convincing the performance and the more fear they can provoke, the better their chances of receiving a ransom for a kidnapping that never occurred.

Simply by convincing a target's family that a kidnapping has occurred, criminals can net thousands of dollars without the effort, resources or risk a physical kidnapping for ransom entails. Although the sums virtual kidnappers generally demand and receive are lower than in an actual high-value kidnapping, the criminals can get a much faster payout. A traditional kidnapping, including the necessary preparations and negotiating for and receiving a ransom, can last for an extended period.

Virtual abductors do not have to spend money to pay for the personnel and infrastructure required for a conventional kidnapping. Typical kidnappings require people to conduct surveillance before a kidnapping and to perform the abduction, and a safe place is needed to hold the victim while negotiations take place. With more people, greater infrastructure and increased communication with the victim's family over time, the risk grows of a kidnapping going bad. A virtual kidnapping can be pulled off in an hour or two by one person or small gang using a disposable cellphone and demanding a ransom wired to an overseas location. Because of the ease of conducting virtual kidnappings, there has even been a long history in certain countries of those scammers operating from inside prisons.

Simply by convincing a target's family that a kidnapping has occurred, criminals can net thousands of dollars without the effort, resources or risk a physical kidnapping for ransom entails.

And even if virtual kidnappers are caught, they do not face the harsher punishments that a conventional kidnapper would. A virtual kidnapping essentially is extortion or a confidence scam with no violence involved or harm caused, so it generally merits a lesser sentence if the criminal is caught and convicted, and it therefore is seen as less risky.

The key to a successful virtual kidnapping is in mastering the theatrics required to instill a thorough sense of fear and shock in the victim — which in the case of a virtual kidnapping is the person who actually receives the call, since the person who has purportedly been kidnapped is in no danger and not victimized at all. The idea is to scare a panicked victim into quickly paying up — and the virtual kidnappers will be gone before the victim realizes that no kidnapping has taken place. Because of this, the kidnappers often set a payment deadline of an hour or so and strive to keep the victim on the phone throughout the ordeal. Often they will create background noise such as a child's screams or threaten to disfigure or sexually assault the purported victim to increase pressure and panic.

Variations of virtual kidnapping scams have been around for a couple of decades. An early version of virtual kidnapping relied heavily on obtaining — and exploiting — personal information about the target. In one such scheme, the scammers positioned themselves at a mall or other youth hangout offering young people a chance to enter a bogus contest for prizes such as cellphones, watches or game consoles. The youths then filled out so-called entry blanks, unwittingly offering up personal information such as addresses, phone numbers and parents' names. Afterward, the schemers would follow a potential target until he or she entered a place like a loud dance club or a movie theater where telephone contact would be difficult or impossible. This gave the criminals the opportunity to call the target's parents and claim that an abduction had take place. The scammers, armed with the personal information gained from the contest form, could describe in detail what the child was wearing and his or her whereabouts, then demand that a ransom be paid immediately.

Variations of virtual kidnapping scams have been around for a couple of decades.

Because of the amount of information the scammers had gained from the form, the scam could be very convincing. This method is still used by some virtual kidnappers, but it requires legwork — as do similar schemes that mine relevant personal information from social media. Because of the effort required, many criminals have abandoned it for easier virtual kidnapping scams that, rather than relying on this type of detailed research, use information elicited from the victim during the phone call.

But even this type of low-level, wide saturation-style virtual kidnapping can be lucrative for skillful con artists. In November 2013, U.S. authorities dismantled a virtual kidnapping ring that operated out of Tijuana and San Diego. That gang conducted little to no research on intended targets. Despite minimal effort, the group still netted about $500,000 before authorities dismantled the operation.

In 2013, we became aware of another type of virtual kidnapping in Mexico, in which a caller claiming to be from a Mexican drug cartel would contact a victim staying at a hotel, claim he or she was under surveillance and order him or her to check into another hotel. If the target appeared to be receptive, the virtual kidnapper would also force the victim to either abandon his or her cellphone or acquire a new one. Victims are often told to withdraw cash from an ATM — all the while being threatened with heavy cartel surveillance. Once the target has moved to a location chosen by the criminals and has been manipulated into breaking contact with the outside world, the criminals could also employ a virtual kidnapping scheme targeting the victim's family, which now had no way to contact the target. In this way the scammers can attempt to take money not only from the hapless victim but also from the victim's family. By having the victim check into a different hotel, the kidnappers forgo the need to actually abduct the person, maintain a safe-house or provide for his or her care and feeding — so it is still a very cost-effective operation. Factors that make virtual kidnappers' threats successful in Mexico and elsewhere include the existence of a widespread kidnapping threat, the lack of trust in authorities and the presence of widely feared organized crime groups.

While virtual kidnappings have not been widely seen in the United States and Europe, they have long been common in parts of Latin America and Asia, particularly in Mexico, Brazil, Taiwan and the Philippines. Latin American-based virtual kidnappers are now merely extending the range of their schemes by targeting victims in the United States and Europe, many times calling from overseas. The fact that a person shown on caller ID to be calling from overseas claims to be holding a person kidnapped in the United States is a strong indicator that it is a virtual kidnapping scam and not a true kidnapping.

Keeping Your Wits – and Your Money

The key to countering virtual kidnappers is to keep calm and avoid giving in to the panic they are attempting to induce. It is helpful if the intended victim has a firm idea of the whereabouts of family members. Should a caller claim that a child has been taken when the child should be in class, a quick phone call to the school can defuse the situation before it gets out of hand.

It is also useful if the victim has memorized the contact numbers for family members, schools or workplaces, and other important people and places to text or dial while on the phone to confirm a supposed kidnap victim's safety. This is important if a victim is on the phone with a virtual kidnapping scammer and cannot look in the phone's contact list. Many newer smartphones allow a person to send text messages while on a telephone call, a function that could prove quite useful during a virtual kidnapping.

It is also important that potential victims do not provide any information about family members to the virtual kidnapping scammer — especially because some scammers do not use an extensive information collection process. Remember, those scammers work like social engineering hackers, who seek to glean as much information from a victim as they can to move the scam forward. If the victim does not surrender any information, it will make it very difficult for the scammer to proceed.

Targets should actively demand proof of life from the kidnappers. Almost all real kidnappers understand the importance of proof of life and will be willing to provide it. To gain proof of life, the victim should ask a purported kidnapper a question that only the family member supposedly abducted would know the answer to — especially a question that cannot be answered via social media accounts. If the caller is not willing to provide proof of life, they are very unlikely to actually have a hostage and, in fact, can be expected to escalate the drama if the victim does demand proof of life, so this is an important indicator of a virtual kidnapping scam.

Finally, 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 in many cases it is difficult to prosecute the offenders, the police may be able to use information from one case either to break another one or, at the very least, to help educate others about the specific tactics used by that particular virtual kidnapping scammer.

Virtual kidnapping attempts can be alarming, but they do not have to be economically damaging. By keeping their wits, potential victims can keep their money.

Scott Stewart supervises Stratfor's analysis of terrorism and security issues. Before joining Stratfor, he was a special agent with the U.S. State Department for 10 years and was involved in hundreds of terrorism investigations.

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