FBI Warns Public of ‘Virtual Kidnapping’ Extortion Calls
EL PASO, TX—The Federal Bureau of Investigation El Paso Division wants to warn the public about “virtual kidnapping” extortion calls in West Texas communities.
Law enforcement agencies have been warning the public of virtual kidnapping schemes for some time. Virtual kidnappings happen when a victim is told, over the phone, that his or her family member has been kidnapped. Then, through deception and threats, criminals coerce victims to pay a ransom. The criminals also threaten harm to the party(s) if they call law enforcement or alert authorities. No one is physically kidnapped in these schemes, but they are often traumatic for everyone involved. On average, the family sends thousands of dollars to the scammers before contacting law enforcement.
Authorities believe many more individuals have been victimized as well, but have not reported the incidents to law enforcement—either out of fear or embarrassment. Individuals, families, and small businesses have all been the targets of the calls.
Callers, sometimes representing themselves as members of a drug cartel or corrupt law enforcement, will typically provide the victim with specific instructions to ensure safe “return” of the allegedly kidnapped individual. These instructions usually involve demands of a ransom payment. Most schemes use various techniques to instill a sense of fear, panic, and urgency in an effort to rush the victim into making a very hasty decision. Instructions usually require the ransom payment be made immediately and typically by wire transfer. These schemes involve varying amounts of ransom demands, which often decrease at the first indication of resistance.
The perpetrators will often go to great lengths to engage victims in ongoing conversations to prevent them from verifying the status and location of the “kidnapped” individuals. Callers will often make their victims believe they are being watched and were personally targeted. In reality, many of these callers are outside of the United States, simply making hundreds of calls, possibly using phone directories or other phone lists.
Authorities have seen a new version of the scam where extortionists are calling rooms at U.S. hotels near the border and telling guests that the hotel is surrounded by armed enforcers. The criminals convince the guests to leave their hotel and drive across the border to a Mexico-based hotel. The extortionist then convinces the victim to video-call them and take a screenshot. The criminals will then send the photo to the victim’s family, convince them that their loved-one is kidnapped, and coerce them to pay a ransom.
It’s important to note that the victims are crossing into Mexico on their own, but are doing so under the fear of death. Victims report that the threats feel frighteningly real.
Between 2013 and 2015, investigators were tracking virtual kidnapping calls from Mexico—almost all of these schemes originated from within Mexican prisons. Investigators now see that these telephone calls are originating from other countries as well as inside the United States.
To avoid becoming a victim of this extortion scheme, look for the following possible indicators:
- Calls are usually made from an outside area code
- May involve multiple phone calls
- 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 transfer service
If you receive a phone call from someone who demands payment of a ransom for a kidnapped victim, the following should be considered:
- Stay Calm.
- Try to slow the situation down.
- Avoid sharing information about you or your family during the call.
- Request to speak to the victim directly. Ask, “How do I know my loved one is okay?”
- Request the kidnapped victim call back from his/her cell phone
- Listen carefully to the voice of the kidnapped victim if they speak and ask questions only they would know.
- If they don’t let you speak to the victim, ask them to describe the victim or describe the vehicle they drive, if applicable.
- While staying on the line with alleged kidnappers, try to call the alleged kidnap victim from another phone.
- Attempt to text or contact the victim via social media.
- Attempt to physically locate the victim.
- To buy time, repeat the caller’s request and tell them you are writing down the demand, or tell the caller you need time to get things moving.
- Don’t directly challenge or argue with the caller. Keep your voice low and steady.
If you have any question about whether the call is an extortion scheme or a legitimate kidnapping, contact your nearest FBI office or call 911 immediately.
El Paso FBI is committed to working with our state and local law enforcement officers to increase public awareness regarding the threat posed by virtual kidnappings, and will continue to investigate and refer these types of cases for prosecution. Tips can also be submitted online at https://tips.fbi.gov. All tipsters may remain anonymous.