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The Ransom Ruse: A virtual kidnapping crime wave
January 19, 2016
Traveling to Mexico City recently, an executive of a Fortune 500 company had just checked into the hotel and was preparing to do a little exploring of the city before heading to the conference. As he was leaving the room, the hotel phone rang. Thinking it might be his wife, he picked up the phone. The call was from a stranger who warned him that his family back home in the US would be hurt if he didn’t follow instructions. He was told to turn off his cell phone and move to a new hotel, He was to stay there until he was contacted. The stranger then called his wife and told her that her husband had been kidnapped. If she wanted to see him again, she was told to wire $600 to a bank account in Mexico within 2 hours – and, she was told not to try contacting her husband. Once the kidnappers received the money, they would let him go. There was no actual kidnapping. The Mexican gang was looking for a quick and easy way to make some money. As it turned out, the perpetrators were even in prison at the time of the kidnapping.
Virtual kidnappings don’t just occur in Mexico or other at risk areas of the world. Virtual kidnappings are on the rise throughout the world as a quick and easy way to extort money. The US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has seen a recent increase in cases in New York, Nevada, Texas and California.
Recently, the police department in Santa Cruz, California warned its residents that three area families received similar calls that a loved one was kidnapped. Each call was a hoax. In January 2016, a New Jersey woman received a telephone call from a man claiming to have kidnapped her husband and demanding she pay $1,700.00 for his release. She was instructed to wire money to an individual in Puerto Rico and she did. After contacting the police, she was able to speak to her husband’s office at work in New York City. As the money was already picked up in Puerto Rico, it could not be recovered.
The uptick in virtual kidnapping can be attributed to several factors – it’s so easy to carry out and many people divulge a tremendous amount of information about their lives online -- where they live, places they commonly visit and connected friends. With a telephone number and some personal information about a potential victim, a virtual kidnapper is ready to go. While the schemes or story may vary, their motive is always: to ensure that the victim is in a place – at work, traveling, even in a movie theater with phones turned off -- where they can't be contacted by the family and to get the ransom paid quickly before family members realize it's a scam. Often kidnappers will claim they're holding a victim’s cell phone and advise victims that if they try to contact their loved one, they are jeopardizing their safety. The only way to assure a safe return is to pay up. And the ransom demanded isn’t exceptionally large -- $500, $750, or even $1500 – because they want victims to have easy, quick access to the money. For the virtual kidnapper, those small amounts can add up quickly for significant profit.
When a loved one is put at risk, or we think they’re at risk, we tend not to think straight. And that’s what virtual kidnappers are banking on. To avoid becoming a victim of such scams, look for the following possible indicators:
- Incoming calls come 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 wire transformer services
The FBI also has this advice to avoid being victimized by this or similar scams:
- Resist the pressure to act quickly.
- Try to contact your family member to determine whether or not the call is legitimate.
- Never wire money based on a request made over the phone or in an e-mail, especially overseas. Wiring money is like giving cash—once you send it, you can’t get it back.
This extortion scheme is not new but given what information is available has become big business in recent years, says the FBI. To address this growing risk, Kidnap, Ransom & Extortion insurance policies cover most types of extortion, including virtual kidnapping, which would reimburse the victim for ransom paid and lost. However, most KRE insurers, including XL Catlin, agree -- the best way to prevent virtual kidnappings is to raise awareness to help hinder the hoax.