Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Thugs on the Phone--Has Your Child Really Been Kidnapped?

Criminals have been using virtual kidnapping scams in Mexico and South America for years; however, this scam is becoming increasingly common in the United States as well. In May of 2018, the Fairfax County Police in Virginia reported three virtual kidnapping calls over a 5-day period. Also in May 2018, a father in Southern California received a phone call that led him to believe one of his daughters had been kidnapped and was being held for ransom. The father called it a 13-hour phone call from hell. The father was doing some grocery shopping in preparation for a family weekend getaway when he got a call from an unfamiliar number.

“Daddy! Daddy! Help me daddy!” the voice on the other end of the line screamed. “It sounded like my little girl, and I called out my daughter's name,” the father said. Then the caller told him they had kidnapped his daughter and asked him how much her life was worth. The caller immediately began providing specific directions to banks to withdraw money. He was not allowed to get off the phone or ask questions. The virtual kidnapper went into graphic detail about what he was going to do the child to make her suffer and ultimately claimed he would kill her. The father was directed to at least three banks where he was to clear out his bank accounts in separate withdrawals. He was then given turn-by-turn directions to money wire transfer businesses where he wired more than $10,000 to Mexico.

In January 2015, four members of another extortion ring were sentenced in a San Diego federal court for collectively duping 124 Latino families across the United States into paying over $190,000 in ransom for virtual kidnappings that never took place. 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 and still netted about $500,000 before authorities dismantled the operation.

Scammers have targeted unwitting victims through phone calls that extort them to pay ransoms for purported kidnappings of loved ones. There have even been instances of scamming attempts on targeting US military personnel. The virtual kidnapper has actually not abducted anyone. The scam relies on deception and threats in an attempt to coerce victims to quickly pay a ransom before the scheme is detected.

One victim said the incident was one of the worst experiences of their life. “I could not sleep for days because I was waiting for their phone call to give instructions since they told me that they would kill my niece if I did not send the money requested. I got sick as a result of not sleeping, not eating well, and the stress that I was subjected to and feeling so powerless.”

Yanette Rodriguez Acosta aka Yanette Patino
Virtual kidnappers use numerous tactics in their scams ranging from relatively simple to very complex; however, there are two relatively common scenarios in current use here in the United States.

One involves a male caller who claims to be a member of a well-known Mexican criminal organization such as the Sinaloa Cartel and a female accomplice such as Yanette Rodriguez Acosta who federal authorities indicted in Houston in 2017 for her role in a 3-state virtual kidnapping scam.

Many times, perpetrators cold-call hundreds of random phone numbers in cities across the nation or randomly dial phone numbers based in a given area code in the hopes of hooking victims. When the caller gets someone on the line, he tells the intended victim he has kidnapped a child or other loved one. His female accomplice frantically cries in the background and pleas for help to instill fear in the victim.

In some cases, the victim receiving the call will blurt out a relative's name when they hear someone crying on the phone and then the supposed kidnapper will then say that they are holding the relative that the victim mentioned. This psychological game is designed to coerce their victim into quickly complying. The more convincing the performance and the more fear they can provoke, the better their chances of getting the victim to send money.

The caller demands a ransom payment based on an amount the victim can likely pay immediately and instructs them to wire small amounts via several money wire services to avoid detection. The scammer may use Internet map programs to guide their victim to the closest automated teller machine to obtain money and then guide them to money service business to wire the ransom funds. These tactics lead victims to believe that they are under surveillance and that their actions are critical to their loved one’s safety.

Another fairly common tactic involves a greater knowledge of potential victims and their families that may come from the victim’s social media, friends, or acquaintances. The perpetrator makes telephonic contact with potential victims and works to isolate them and prevent them from communicating. The criminal tells the victim that they are being monitored and that they will be killed if they don’t comply. The scammer tried to convince the victim to check into a hotel or go to an isolated location. At this point the victim is isolated even though the criminal has no physical control over them.

The virtual kidnapper may keep the victim on the phone to prevent them from calling for help. The perpetrator will then coerce the victim into providing phone numbers for their family and may use three-way calling to put victims on the phone with their family as a proof of life. The criminal will then disconnect the victim and threaten to maim or kill them if the ransom is not paid.

The success of any type of virtual kidnapping scheme depends on speed and victim fear. Virtual kidnappers typically focus on getting the victim to quickly pay the ransom. They often will initially demand a large sum but then decrease the amount in hopes that they will get paid before the victim realizes it is a scam or involves the police. A small gang or even one person can conduct a virtual kidnapping in an hour or two using a disposable cellphone and demanding a ransom wired to an overseas location. There has even been a long history in certain countries of virtual kidnappers operating from inside prisons.

To avoid becoming a victim, look for these possible indicators:

     -- Calls do not come from the supposed victim's phone.

     -- Callers will go to great lengths to keep you on the phone and try to prevent you from contacting the "kidnapped" victim.

     -- The scammer demands ransom money to be paid via wire transfer to Mexico or another country; the amount the virtual kidnapper demands may drop quickly.

     -- The scammer is in a great hurry to have the ransom paid.

The key to countering virtual kidnappers is to remain calm and avoid the panic they are attempting to induce. What can you do if you receive a phone call from someone demanding a ransom for an alleged kidnap victim?

     -- In most cases, the best course of action is to hang up the phone.

     -- If you do speak with the caller, don’t provide any personal information or your loved one’s name. This is particularly important because some scammers do not exert a lot of effort to collect potential victim information. These scammers work like social engineering hackers seeking to glean as much information from a victim as they can to improve their chances of success. If the victim does not surrender any information it is very difficult for the scammer to proceed.

     -- The virtual kidnapper is in a hurry--try to slow the situation down. Slowly repeat the caller's request and tell them you are writing down the demand or tell them you need time to get things moving.

     -- Actively demand proof of life. Typically, real kidnappers understand the importance of proof of life and will be willing to provide it. Ask to speak to your family member directly. Insist the caller answer questions only the alleged kidnap victim would know and that cannot be answered via social media such as their favorite food, the name of a pet, favorite movie, etc.

     -- Listen carefully to the voice of the alleged victim if they speak. Is it really your loved one?

     -- Try to contact the alleged victim via phone, text, or social media, and ask them to call you from their cell phone.

     -- If the caller is trying to get you to go to an ATM or other location and implying that you are under surveillance, ask them what you are wearing. Never agree to pay a ransom by wire or in person. Delivering money in person can be dangerous.

Regardless of whether you suspect a real kidnapping is taking place or you believe a ransom demand is a scheme, you should always call local law enforcement or contact the nearest FBI office immediately. Save any caller ID information, voicemails, texts, etc., from the alleged kidnappers. 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 or to help educate your community about the specific tactics a particular virtual kidnapping scammer is using in your area. 

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Thursday, June 21, 2018

Practice 2018 -- The Federal Air Marshall Qualification Course

Air Marshall Qualification -- Score 144 Points
I believe that it is important to have goals and this includes measurable goals associated with your shooting practice. My current goal is to shoot 100% on the old Federal Air Marshall (FAM) Pistol Qualification course. My best effort to date was a score of 144. This was the first time I have ever made points; however, on three different strings I went over the time limits by 0.42, 0.11, and 0.09 so . . . . I failed to qualify.

The FAM qualification course requires a fine balance between speed and accuracy because of its strict adherence to the maximum time requirements for each stage. If you do not meet the time requirement on every stage, you fail even if you managed to shoot a passing score over the whole course of fire.

Shooting the FAM qualification course is best done on an outdoor range. The course requires you to shoot targets spaced across lanes and one of the stages requires the shooter to turn 180-degrees without sweeping anyone. You must use a concealment garment for two of the seven stages. The course of fire is 30 rounds from 7-yards, fired at three targets spaced three yards apart.

Stage 1: From concealment, draw and fire one round. Repeat. Maximum time is 3.30 seconds for 2 rounds fired.

Stage 2: From low ready, double tap the target. Repeat. Maximum time is 2.70 seconds for 4 rounds fired.

Stage 3: From low ready, fire 6 rounds into the target. Maximum time is 3.00 seconds for 6 rounds fired.

Stage 4: From low ready, fire one shot, reload, fire one shot. Repeat. Maximum time is 6.50 seconds for 4 rounds fired.

Stage 5: From low ready, fire one round into 2 targets, each three yards apart. Repeat. Maximum time is 3.30 seconds for 4 rounds fired.

Stage 6: From concealment and facing up range with back to targets, turn 180 degrees and place one shot into each of three targets, three yards apart. Repeat. Maximum time is 7.00 seconds for 6 rounds fired.

Stage 7: From low ready and standing, fire one round, slide locks back, drop to one knee, reload, fire one round. Repeat. Maximum time is 8.00 seconds for 4 rounds fired. (Note this is essentially the 1-reload-1 drill just dropping to a knee while reloading)

FBI QIT-97 Target
At the 2016 IDPA Nationals I asked Mike Seeklander which target the FAM qualification used and he told me it was the FBI QIT-97 Target. A clean shot inside the inner bottle not touching a line (dark gray) counts for five points. A shot in the outer bottle (light gray) or touching either inner or outer bottle lines, counts for 2 points. Shots outside the outer bottle that miss completely receive zero points.

Shooting within the time limits while hitting the inner bottle necessarily requires a balance between speed and accuracy. This is not trivial. The maximum possible score is 150 points with a minimum passing score of 135 points. A minimum passing score of 135 allows for three complete misses or seven inner bottle misses. From my experience, if you are at the level where you miss the QIT-97 entirely your chances of passing the qualification are slim. The inner bottle scoring area measures 3-7/8” wide x 15-1/8” long; that leaves very little room for lateral error if you wish to earn 5 points with every shot.

The FAM Qualification course tests several major tasks you must perform in the course of shooting a match or using a pistol for self-defense. They are:

-- Safely draw the pistol (clear concealment garment)

-- Extend to fire

-- Transition between targets

-- Reload the pistol 

-- Execute precise shots (sight alignment, sight picture, trigger control)

-- Turning then drawing the pistol

-- Moving from standing to kneeling

In my series of articles on deliberate practice I discuss the value of structured drills with specific goals designed to improve performance. Each of the major tasks listed above is composed of sub tasks that also must be performed correctly. Once we break each major task down into sub tasks we can then apply the deliberate practice methodology to improve our shooting.

The Federal Air Marshall course of fire is an extremely challenging pistol qualification and is a good tool for concealed carriers to use to benchmark their skills. If you can stay within the time limits and score a perfect 150, I will tip my hat to you.

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Friday, June 15, 2018

Thugs in the Driveway? HOME INVADERS?

The Saturday before Mother’s Day I exited my house through the garage to do quick chore in the back yard—leaving the garage door open and the door from the garage to the house unlocked. As I was working, a decrepit white van with two men in it suddenly pulled into my drive way and one of the men jumped out and ran to the rear of the van. HOME INVADERS!!!???

I drew my pistol and sprinted to the back door (it was locked, but I always carry a house key when I am outside
I was accidentally locked out once) and went inside, yelling for everyone to go to the safe room while I covered the door from my workroom into the kitchen. This was the door someone coming into the house from the garage would have to use.

As my wife was calling 911, I heard the van backing out of the driveway and starting up the street. I re-holstered my pistol, grabbed my house gun (not a pistol) and cautiously cleared the workroom. I then cleared the garage wondering what the van occupants had been doing. I then noticed a large box of flowers on the trash can in the garage—they had been delivering Mother’s Day flowers
and . . . left them on a trash can in the garage?

Even though the delivery team’s behavior probably wasn’t the best approach, in this instance there was no malicious intent. Although there was another barrier between me and the workroom, needless to say I was not pleased that I had left the door to the garage unlocked. So how do you prevent this?

One step is pretty obvious: LOCK YOUR DOORS! I did not do so in this instance as I intended to reenter the house through the garage a short time later—my failure. Get into the habit of locking exterior doors if they are going to be unattended when you are outside your home.

But I live in a good neighborhood you say? Well so do I—many of us live in neighborhoods we would characterize as safe. I live in a gated community; however, that did not stop someone that looked and acted like a home invader from showing up in my driveway.

In Texas, using force against an intruder who you know or have reason to believe was unlawfully and with force entering or attempting to enter unlawfully and with force your occupied habitation, vehicle, or place of business or employment is presumed reasonable under certain circumstances (if you live in another state your results may vary).* Therefore, in the circumstances I was facing I intended to wait to and see if the intruder was going to attempt to breach the door from the workroom into the kitchen and respond accordingly from a cover position.

If someone does manage to defeat your door and enters your home, responding from a cover position increases your chances of survival and builds the foundation of “reasonableness” for your actions. I am not a fan of leaving your home to confront intruders. Exiting your home and confronting a possible intruder outside increases your physical risk and may negate the presumption of reasonableness for your actions. The only reason I did so in this instance was because the van had departed presumably taking all the occupants with it.

Everyone should think through scenarios such as this now and develop a plan based on your particular circumstances. In my house, someone yelling “SAFE ROOM!” is giving the command for everyone to instantly stop what they are doing and go to a secure bedroom. A reinforced bedroom door provides a safe room you can retreat to if you are in another part of the house when someone attempts to break and enter. From there you can call 911 and prepare to take other necessary action.

Another step is to reinforce your exterior and (if possible) interior doors. Take a quick look at this video
. That is how easy it is to kick in a normally constructed residential exterior door. So how do you prevent someone from kicking in your door?

One solution is heavy metal doors similar to those in the picture. No human could kick in this steel door. For exterior wooden doors, I personally used the Strikemaster II Pro to reinforce the door jam and hinges. I did this as the house was being built and asked the builder to install them so it was relatively painless. 

Similar products are the Door Armor Max (formerly EZ Armor) that Armor Concepts produces and Door Security Pro. There are probably others on the market that perform a similar function. As I look at product reviews however, it is clear that some people find the simple install is not quite so simple so your results may vary. You can purchase these products from a variety of vendors. 

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Saturday, June 9, 2018

The Journey to IDPA Master

In 2015 as IDPA began adding divisions, I committed to the goal of shooting CCP Master and eventually becoming a 6-Gun Master — a challenging goal for someone who had never shot better than Sharpshooter on the 90-round IDPA Classifier.

I was shooting local IDPA matches and often dropping only a handful of points. However, my times were not good and I never finished the match much higher than middle of the pack. I resolved to get better and began shooting the IDPA Classifier on a regular basis. I quickly discovered that no matter how often I shot the classifier, I was a solid Sharpshooter.

I asked IDPA Distinguished Master Gregg Kratochvil if there was a secret to shooting fast and accurately. "If you want to learn to shoot fast — you have to shoot fast," Gregg
said with a slightly surprised look on his face.

Wow, perhaps I'm a little dense, but that was a revelation.

Shooting fast while hitting the target necessarily requires a balance between speed and accuracy. Hitting this balance depends on the target, distance, situation and your skill. I had often heard the phrase "slow is smooth and smooth is fast." That never made sense to me and I noticed the typical person uttering the phrase was almost always shooting slowly.

I began to suspect the shooters saying this really did not understanding the underlying principles. I realized that if I only practiced slow, deliberate marksmanship, then that was the only skill I was developing — slow, deliberate marksmanship. It became obvious that speed was not going to just happen on its own.

Could I even shoot a Master-level time? I had never tried. In my first attempt, I shot an overall time of 89.99 seconds. Great! However, I dropped 61 points — Sharpshooter once again. (the 90-round classifier)

I persevered and continued to try and shoot Master times while simultaneously developing an efficient reload and working on trigger control and sight alignment/sight picture.

Clearly, if you want to learn to shoot fast, you need to spend time working on speed. Shooting is just like any other activity; the only way you'll make significant gains is by pushing the envelope.

I began to understand what the pistol felt like when I was shooting fast. Sub-80-second overall times became the norm, and (interestingly) I started dropping fewer points as well. Controlling the pistol at speed was becoming easier and my accuracy was improving. I was paying attention to what the pistol and target were telling me. I also developed a healthy respect for the gentlemen who conceived of the 90-round IDPA classifier; it truly does measure your shooting skill.

As I continued practicing, my typical CCP classifier scores improved from Sharpshooter to Expert. I started finishing near the top in our local matches and even began winning a few.

An unanticipated but welcome side effect was that the skills I was developing with my CCP pistol (a Springfield XD) transferred to other pistol platforms without too much difficulty. One day, a friend loaned me his SSP pistol, and I shot SSP Expert and then with a different pistol shot Back Up Gun (BUG) Master.

Learning to shoot fast is harder than simply learning to shoot accurately because you are learning to go faster than you ever have before. You must teach yourself faster trigger manipulation, to align the sights faster, and control recoil better.

As the classifier demonstrates, accuracy and speed exist in balance. Push one to the limits of your skill and you'll necessarily see the other suffer. I learned that if you shoot fast, you will miss sometimes, but that is OK because accuracy does catch up with continued practice.

However, speeding up does not mean purposely missing the target, nor does it mean spraying bullets as fast as you can. Learning to shoot faster means pushing yourself and getting a little (but safely) out of control as you find the limit of your skills — and then pushing beyond them just a little.

Try to make every shot count and every trigger pull perfect — they won't be, but you must try.

Be careful of inadvertently introducing bad habits as you speed up. This is particularly true of trigger manipulation. I discovered that as I sped up I was developing bad trigger habits. The target will tell you when bad habits begin to creep in, especially for longer distance targets.

If you have a video camera, take it to the range and record what you are doing. As you speed up, it becomes more challenging to determine exactly what is happening as you shoot. Video will show you things (good and bad) you may not realize you are doing.

You will hit plateaus as you progress. When I started practicing in earnest, I generally shot the classifier in the mid-120s. As my speed and accuracy improved and I pushed past the plateaus, I generally dropped about 10 seconds before I would hit another. These drops reflected my skill at that point in the process.

It is frustrating sometimes, and there is a tendency to focus on the negative. Don't let negative thoughts intrude — focus on what you are doing right and correct the areas that are causing you problems. Always finish every practice session on a positive note with something you do well whether it is shooting a close-range speed drill, deliberate shots, etc.

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Sunday, June 3, 2018

Practice 2018: The Changing Gears Drill

The Changing Gears Drill
This is the Changing Gears Drill from the Short Range match. The ability to quickly transition between multiple targets and deliver accurate hits takes training and practice. 

The drill is designed to practice transitions from precise shots to controlled pairs. The targets are IDPA-style with a Gunsite-sized head scoring area that is a trapezoid as shown. Any shot outside or touching the line is a -1 second off your time and shots that miss the head are -5 seconds.

Head Shot Scoring Area
Set up four targets spaced 3 feet apart at 10 yards and face the center target. For string #1: At the beep shot from left to right one head shot on T1, 2 body shots on T2, one head on T3, 2 body on T4.  For string #2, from right to left, one head shot on T4, 2 body shots on T3, one head on T2, 2 body on T1.  Then for string #3 one head shot on each target.

When we use this drill as a stage in the Short Range Match we start in a different position for each string. One string starts with hands at sides, one with hand on pistol, and one with hands in surrender position.  We record the draw times and this lets the shooter know how fast their draw is from the respective starting positions.

The target distance, spacing, and head shot scoring limitations force a greater degree of focus on the shooter's part and improves their transition skills. The overall time and target score are still important and Master-level shooters who are on their game will deliver six perfect hits in around 4.0 seconds.

A proper transition in a match is executed as follows:  As you acquire your first target, obtain a good sight alignment/picture and press off the shot. The instant you fire the shot, move your eyes to the exact spot where you wish to hit on the second target and transition the pistol to that target while prepping the trigger for the next shot.  The instant the pistol arrives at the second target and you confirm the sight picture, press off the next shot. And so on.

If you record your runs, you can analyze draw times, transition times, and split times.  A 60 frame per second video or any decent timer can provide you this information.

Take a look at my runs on this video: Click here. (Please note: This video is for educational purposes only. Do not try this yourself without proper instruction.) 

For string #1, I had a draw time of 1.84 with 0.85 of dwell time.* A total time of 5.39 (not great--my first stage of the day--no excuse however).  My average transition times were 0.88 seconds and my splits for the 2 body shots were 0.18 and 0.13 respectively. 

For string #2, I had a draw time of 1.85 with 0.74 of dwell time and a total time of 4.46.  My average transition times were 0.73 seconds and my splits for the 2 body shots were a little slower at 0.22 and 0.21 respectively.

For string #3 head shots only, I had a draw time of 1.61 with 0.65 of dwell time and a total time of 4.10.  My average transition times were 0.83 seconds. 

Learning to move your eyes takes practice. The eyes can move much faster than you can move the pistol. Visually acquiring and then concentrating on where you intend to place the next shot reduces transition and dwell time (see below). 

The short-range course of fire match follows proper safety principals and generally has targets at no more than 10 yards. Otherwise, it is a regular course of fire, with many stages requiring proper use of cover, a reload, movement, etc. 

Come out and shoot with us on the 2nd Sunday at Cedar Ridge Range in San Antonio.

For more information go to:

*I define dwell time as time I appear to have the pistol on the target, but I have not fired. Somewhat subjective.