The Federal Bureau of Investigation has issued a warning about the rise and evolution of “virtual kidnapping” calls, in which extortionists scare unsuspecting people into paying ransom money to free a kidnapped loved one, when in reality no kidnapping has taken place, and the screaming on the other end of the line is phony.
Between 2013 and 2015, investigators in the FBI’s Los Angeles Division were tracking virtual kidnapping calls from Mexico—almost all of these schemes originate from within Mexican prisons. The calls targeted specific individuals who were Spanish speakers. A majority of the victims were from the Los Angeles and Houston areas.
“In 2015, the calls started coming in English,” said FBI Los Angeles Special Agent Erik Arbuthnot, “and something else happened: The criminals were no longer targeting specific individuals, such as doctors or just Spanish speakers. Now they were choosing various cities and cold-calling hundreds of numbers until innocent people fell for the scheme.”
This was significant, Arbuthnot said, because the new tactic vastly increased the potential number of victims. In the case he was investigating, which became known as Operation Hotel Tango, more than 80 victims were identified in California, Minnesota, Idaho, and Texas. Collective losses were more than $87,000.
The incarcerated fraudsters—who typically bribe guards to acquire cell phones—would choose an affluent area such as Beverly Hills, California. They would search the Internet to learn the correct area code and telephone dialing prefix. Then, with nothing but time on their hands, they would start dialing numbers in sequence, trolling for victims.
When an unsuspecting person answered the phone, they would hear a female screaming, “Help me!” The screamer’s voice was likely a recording. Instinctively, the victim might blurt out his or her child’s name: “Mary, are you okay?” And then a man’s voice would say something like, “We have Mary. She’s in a truck. We are holding her hostage. You need to pay a ransom and you need to do it now or we are going to cut off her fingers.”
Most of the time, Arbuthnot said, “the intended victims quickly learned that ‘Mary’ was at home or at school, or they sensed the scam and hung up. This fraud only worked when people picked up the phone, they had a daughter, and she was not home,” he explained. “But if you are making hundreds of calls, the crime will eventually work.”
The scammers attempt to keep victims on the phone so they can’t verify their loved ones’ whereabouts or contact law enforcement.
So what should you do if, God forbid, you get one of these calls? The FBI advises that it’s generally best to just hang up and then attempt to contact the alleged kidnapping victim. If, however, you do choose to speak with the supposed kidnapper, be sure to refuse to give him the name of any friend or relative or any other identifying information, ask questions they would only know the answers to if they really were holding a loved one, listen carefully for any identifiable voices, slow the kidnapper down by calmly asking for details and to speak with the alleged victim, and whatever you do, don’t agree to any payments — especially not ones delivered in person.