FBI San Antonio
Special Agent Michelle Lee
(210) 650-6333
June 29, 2016

Recent Spike of Virtual Kidnapping Extortion Calls in the Rio Grande Valley

The Federal Bureau of Investigation seeks to alert the public to a recent spike in “virtual kidnapping” extortion calls in the Rio Grande Valley. Over the past decade, several FBI offices, including San Antonio, along with many state and local law enforcement partners, received reports from the public regarding extortion schemes, often referred to as virtual kidnappings. These schemes typically involve an individual or criminal organization who contacts a victim via telephone and demands payment for the return of a “kidnapped” family member or friend. While no actual kidnapping has taken place, the callers often use co-conspirators to convince their victims of the legitimacy of the threat. For example, a caller might attempt to convince a victim that his daughter was kidnapped by having a young female scream for help in the background during the call.

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.

Callers 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.

While law enforcement agencies throughout the Rio Grande Valley typically receive an average of eight reported virtual kidnapping complaints in a month, during the month of June, the number of victims has more than doubled with more than 20 reported virtual kidnapping extortions. The callers in the recent scheme are demanding $50,000 to secure the release of the allegedly kidnapped victims.

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 immediately. Anyone with information about these fraud schemes is also encouraged to contact the nearest FBI office:

San Antonio FBI

  • San Antonio (24-hour): (210) 225-6741
  • Brownsville: (956) 546-6922
  • Del Rio: (830) 775-0076
  • Laredo: (956) 723-4021
  • McAllen: (956) 984-6300
  • Austin: (512) 345-1111
  • Waco: (254) 772-1627

San Antonio 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.