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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