The media floods us with news stories about kidnappings from around the world — most with tragic endings.
But few Americans take the threat seriously. You and your loved ones probably don’t even worry about kidnappers, especially if you live in a nice neighborhood in a nice town.
Well, start worrying. Criminals have come up with a new way to terrorize you anywhere. It’s called "virtual kidnapping."
So what’s the difference between "kidnapping" and "virtual kidnapping"?
When virtual kidnappers call, they convince your family that this is what has happened to you — even if you’re perfectly safe
In the traditional kidnapping, a lone criminal or a gang abducts you or your loved one for ransom. They can demand the payoff from you, your family or your employer.
Kidnapping for ransom is a huge global enterprise today. In Mexico, well-to-do families rarely travel without bodyguards. And the worldwide success of kidnapping has inspired the rise of "virtual kidnapping."
Virtual kidnapping is more like a scam because nobody really gets "taken." The scam normally starts when you get a frantic phone call from a criminal who tells you that they have snatched a family member or someone near and dear to you.
You may even hear faked screams in the background. The caller may tell you that he has a gun pointed at your loved one’s head and that he will kill the loved one if you don’t pay up.
To keep the call from being traced, the crook will use a "burner phone," a cheap cell phone with prepaid hours on it. When the deed is done, the phone will be thrown away so it can never be used again.
Before you begin to think straight, the caller might order you to wire transfer a designated sum of money to a numbered account in Gibraltar, the Caribbean or the Far East. Or the crook might order you to go directly to your bank right now and withdraw a less-conspicuous stash in small bills as a ransom payment.
The manipulative criminal will try to keep you on the phone for as long as possible. And the crook will warn you not to call the police or anyone else until the deal is done.
The kidnapper might claim to control your loved one’s cell phone and might even threaten to kill your loved one if you dare to call that phone.
To ramp up the emotional pressure, the thug might tell you that your loved one has been injured, maybe even bleeding severely. And the punk will tell you that the quicker they get the money, the quicker your loved one can get medical care.
All this drama is calculated to distract you from even thinking about the shocking truth — that they don’t have your beloved at all! It’s all a cruel hoax!
Your loved one is perfectly safe. But the chances are you won’t find this out until you’ve already shelled out the ransom.
In another twist, sometimes they don’t even pretend to have snatched your wife, son or granddaughter. They just threaten to kidnap them, backing up their threat with reams and reams of personal details, including birth dates, addresses, school names, and more.
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How do the virtual kidnappers target you?
Virtual kidnappers scour social media and the Internet to select their targets to "kidnap."
They find out where their target lives, works, socializes, shops and plays. They identify their target’s family, friends, neighbors and co-workers.
If the target’s on vacation or away on business, they can uncover the victim’s schedule and they can locate the victim’s hotel and room number.
Some kidnappers use sophisticated scams to get information about a target. They set up fake kiosks in malls and public spaces as a ploy to get information from passersby. They arrange giveaways for iPhones and Xboxes in upscale areas where residents blithely share their names, addresses, phone numbers and occupations.
On the other end of the spectrum, intelligent criminals employ social engineering concepts to coerce information out of people gently on the phone, which can later be used against them.
Isn’t this the type of thing that only happens at vacation spots?
Virtual kidnappings are not a new threat. Places like Latin America and Asia have had these criminal scams going on for more than a decade.
And while virtual kidnappings certainly can and do happen at vacation spots around the world, they also happen in your backyard.
In the past few years, there has been a dramatic increase in these virtual kidnappings all over the United States, from California to New York and from Texas to Washington, D.C. and many other states in between. This crime is not limited to any one state or area.
Virtual kidnappings can be committed by a gang or a cartel or by everyday criminals who want to enjoy the spoils of their "hard labor."
The psychological aspect.
As I said earlier, a virtual kidnapping does not involve an actual abduction.
So the kidnappers must be very convincing to instill fear into the people they call so the terrorized folks will give up the dough before the scam unravels. And just like when Broadway actors play to the front rows, the greater the drama, the greater the chances of selling their roles.
For the hoods, there are advantages and disadvantages to a virtual kidnapping.
The advantages: It requires fewer resources and less preparation. Plus it’s tough for law enforcement to identify and catch "virtual kidnappers" because few if any physical clues tie them to the crime.
A major disadvantage: Virtual kidnapping doesn’t pay well because it’s hard to convince people to give up big jackpots on the spur of the moment when all you use is smoke and mirrors.
But overall, the risk-reward ratio favors the crooks.
In the past several years, the kidnappers have developed an even more sophisticated modus operandi while intimidating people into paying them off.
For example, sometimes the crooks bully a relative of the "kidnap victim" into ditching his cell phone after they’ve given him directions for the drop-off.
They tell the relative that they’re going to follow him or her on a pre-determined wild goose chase, moving from place to place, traveling in unfamiliar areas, and making withdrawals from various ATMs.
The idea behind this is to separate him from his co-workers, friends and family, to break communication with everyone he knows. So when the drop-off finally happens, the "kidnappers’ can feel comfortable they won’t have to deal with the cops, the feds or the fake victim’s Uncle Vito.
How do you deal with virtual kidnappers?
Here are some practical tips on what you can do should you find yourself targeted:
- From my experience, "real" kidnappers don’t call you on the phone to tell you they are going to kidnap your child, grandchild or wife. They simply do it. You therefore must clearly identify the threat as a potential virtual kidnapping and hash out a rapid plan of action.
- Do not comply with the virtual kidnapper’s demands.
- Do not throw away your cell phone.
- Immediately text or call the person whom they claim that they have kidnapped.
- Do not attempt to find the kidnappers yourself.
- If you are on vacation outside the United States, contact your embassy or consulate office for help.
- If you are on vacation, stay in your hotel room behind locked doors and call authorities while ignoring any incoming calls from the kidnappers.
- Maintain contact at all times with the outside world.
- Be prepared for the virtual kidnapping to transition into a real kidnapping, perhaps even your own!
- Take extra precautions routinely to guard your personal information both online and off.
- If you are traveling, make sure your hotel has proper security.
- If you receive this type of threat while at work, call your company’s security director.
Until next time, stay alert, check your six, put your back against the wall and stay safe!