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Apr 5, 2006 | 23:42 GMT

4 mins read

Virtual Kidnappings: Taking Advantage of Panic

Editor's Note: This is the first analysis in a series on kidnapping. Although kidnap-for-ransom schemes, especially those involving high-profile figures, can net huge payoffs in terms of money and media exposure, creative criminals in many parts of the world have devised a way to avoid the risky and labor-intensive work of actually abducting their victims by staging so-called "virtual" kidnappings. This relatively new trend involves no abduction whatsoever, in fact, but simply convincing a target's family that a kidnapping has occurred. Though the "victim" most likely is in no danger, the panicked family members will quickly pay the "ransom" — and the virtual kidnappers will be gone before the family comes to its senses. Virtual kidnappings rely heavily on obtaining — and exploiting — personal information about the target. In one such scheme, the kidnappers position themselves at a mall or other youth hangout claiming to offer young people a chance to enter a contest for prizes such as iPods or X-Boxes. The youths then fill out "entry blanks," unwittingly offering up personal information such as addresses, home phone numbers and the names of parents. Afterward, the kidnappers follow the potential target until he or she enters a place where cell phones cannot be immediately answered, such as a school or a movie theatre. This provides the kidnappers with a window of opportunity to call the target's parents, claim that they have abducted their child, describe details of authenticity such as what the person is wearing or where he was going, and demand that a ransom be paid immediately. This new form of pseudo-abduction is based largely on psychological shock, scaring the victim's family into making an irrational, impulsive decision such as transferring large sums of money. The advantage to the abductors is that none of the traditional infrastructure is required for virtual kidnappings. Typical kidnappings involve the housing and feeding of the victim, and usually need a gang of accomplices to successfully execute. With increased manpower and infrastructure, the risk grows of a kidnapping going bad. A virtual kidnapping can be pulled off by a single person or small gang, using a cell phone and requesting ransom money be deposited into an anonymous bank account. This is a very quick process compared to conventional kidnappings, which can take several weeks to negotiate a release. Virtual kidnappings rely on the element of surprise, demands for ransom within the hour, giving no time for families to consider their options or contact authorities. In the event that the virtual kidnappers are caught, they do not face the same punishments as a conventional kidnapper. A virtual kidnapping essentially is extortion, with no physical harm coming to anyone. While virtual kidnappings have not been widely seen in the United States, they have become more common in places such as Taiwan, Mexico and Brazil — countries with dense urban populations. In cases in Taiwan, virtual kidnappers have been known to have a random child screaming in the background to further elevate the parents' level of panic during the phone call. The distraught parents will proceed to pay the "ransom" without thinking to call their child's cell phone. In Mexico, virtual kidnappings have become more prevalent in the past two years, with many of the extortion calls coming from inside prisons. In those cases, a twist on the concept, jailed gang members threaten to kidnap or kill a family member and demand that payments be made to accomplices on the outside. Keeping in mind that these criminals rely heavily on obtaining personal information about the intended target — and knowing when and where to share that sensitive information — is vital to preventing a virtual kidnapping. Knowing the whereabouts of family members throughout the day also is essential. 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. Virtual kidnappings are based solely on fear and can be foiled simply by knowing the real whereabouts of a "victim" — and keeping one's wits should the call come in.

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