In late 2015, an executive of a Fortune 500 company traveled to Mexico City to attend a business conference. Shortly after he arrived, his wife back in the United States received a threatening phone call. Her husband had been kidnapped. She had just two hours to wire $600 to a bank account in Mexico, or she would never see her husband alive again. Before hanging up, the kidnapper warned her not to try contacting her husband. Meanwhile her husband — who hadn’t really been kidnapped — had received a call on his hotel phone earlier. When he answered, he was told that if he wanted to keep his family safe, he would turn off his cell phone, check into a different hotel, and stay there until they contacted him again.
This is a “virtual kidnapping” and, like most cybercrimes, it has become an epidemic. Just a few months after the case in Mexico City, a woman in New Jersey lost $1,700 when she wired a ransom to Puerto Rico, attempting to rescue her husband. It was only after she made the transfer that she was able to call the police and discover the hoax. Unfortunately, there was no recovering her money.
Threat Forecast’s 2017 report confirms virtual kidnappings are increasing, especially in Latin America. However, the report also projects this type of crime to rise throughout Europe and the United States. The FBI has already reported an increased number of virtual kidnappings in California, Nevada, New York, and Texas.
A phone call like this might be your worst nightmare, but there are indicators to help determine if a kidnapping is a hoax:
- The call comes from an outside area code.
- Calls are not made from the kidnapped victim’s phone.
- Callers refuse to let you speak to the kidnapped victim.
- Callers make a point to order you not to try contacting the kidnapped victim.
- They will only accept the ransom via wire transfer.
Virtual kidnappings have been so successful because the criminals rely on fear to make victims act irrationally. This is why the ransom demands are smaller, usually between $500 and $2000. They want their victims to have fast access to the money, setting up a frightened family member to act quickly before they have time to figure out the ruse. The FBI encourages victims to resist the pressure to act fast and instead try to contact the alleged kidnapped victim to determine if the call in real. Then, call the authorities to report the