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How to respond to the increase in "virtual kidnapping"?

Question: 
I recently heard someone say they were the recipient of a call, where the suspect claimed to have kidnapped a family member, only to learn that the alleged victim was traveling and unharmed. Is this a common scheme to get money from people?
Answer: 

We believe you are referring to an old trick, but one that has escalated in recent times, especially along border states. According to a recent alert from the San Antonio field office of the FBI, these "virtual kidnappings" have increased significantly over the past 3 years. 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. The FBI has published the following possible indicators of virtual kidnapping to avoid becoming a victim of this extortion scheme:

  • Incoming calls made from an outside area code
  • multiple successive 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
  • Slow the situation down
  • Avoid sharing information about you or your family during the call
  • Listen carefully to the voice of the kidnapped victim
  • Attempt to call or determine the location of the "kidnapped" victim
  • Request to speak to the victim
  • Ask questions only the victim would know
  • Request the kidnapped victim call back from his/her cell phone

For additional tips on how to avoid this and other scams, visit the FBI website at www.fbi.gov

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First published on 05/22/2016

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