Virtual Kidnap: An evolving crime with cases on the rise



‘Virtual kidnap’ is a crime that has developed and changed over the past five years and is prevalent particularly in Mexico but also throughout Latin America and isolated incidents have been reported in the USA. Our Response experience of these cases has shown that there is no ‘typical case’, however, there are similarities. 

Outlining the original Modus Operandi

The original method started with the ‘kidnappers’ randomly cold calling lists of numbers. Upon connection, the extortionist would play an audio recording of a person – often a child – under duress, usually screaming or shouting. Without allowing any verification, the caller would claim that they were in possession of a loved one before demanding a relatively small ransom for their safe release with a short deadline to pay.

For the ‘kidnap’ to work, the ransom had to be small enough to be attainable for most people, and to attract no suspicion during an online transfer. Throughout the ordeal, the extortionist occupied the victim’s phone line at all times, preventing them from contacting their loved one. Once the funds had been received, the call ended. The victim then made an all-out effort to contact their loved one, only to find that they were completely fine and were never in any danger whatsoever.

An evolving concern

In a concerning evolution of the crime, ‘kidnappers’ now use the initial phone call to coerce their victim into simulating their own kidnap. Victims answer the phone, only to be threatened that they are being shadowed by someone who will kill them unless they follow instructions. The victim is directed to a private place to pose for photographs that simulate their own imprisonment, before these are sent to family members as proof of capture. The same process is then followed, keeping the victim on the phone so they cannot be contacted until the ‘ransom’ is received.

The term ‘virtual kidnap’ is perhaps a misnomer – it is much better understood as a traditional form of extortion. Knowing this, it is important to consider what makes this organised extortion scam effective. In its present form – self isolation – its success is largely predicated on the victim’s fear of dangers within the place they are presently operating; travellers or contractors working away from home are the usual targets.

NYA has recorded an unprecedented increase in the number of this version of successful virtual kidnappings over the past 24 months, but this does not reflect how many attempts must be being made. Perpetrators are very often low-level cartel members in Mexican prisons, with nothing more than a contraband mobile and time on their hands. With the number of attempts probable in what resembles an industrialised extortion operation, it is no surprise that a small percentage of victims, captured by fear, fall for the trap.

Defeating virtual kidnap

Fear is the engine of any extortion attempt, and fear can only be generated by an apparent credible threat. Therefore, the most important method of defeating such an extortion attempt is to degrade the credibility of the extortionist. Virtual kidnap is shown to work best in societies with high levels of impunity. Though there are a growing number of cases reported in the USA (though to be honest, mostly within Spanish speaking communities), the vast majority of cases take place in Mexico and other Latin American countries, where the threat and reach of organised crime is very real, and very dangerous. Promoting trust in the capabilities of law enforcement is therefore critical to preventing the conditions whereby schemes such as these become endemic.

Prevention and mitigation

If you are suspicious that you or someone close to you is being targeted in a ‘virtual kidnap’, end the call immediately and do not answer any further calls from unknown numbers. However, it is normal to be uncertain (it is what the perpetrators play on), so should you continue to engage in a verbal exchange:

  • Slow everything down. In a real physical kidnap the perpetrators are not in a hurry. Create excuses that money cannot be found quickly and push a promise to pay into the next day – the longer it takes to pay, the more likely it is that the virtual aspect of the kidnap will collapse
  • Demand to speak with the victim at length
  • If allowed only a short conversation, immediately state that if they have never seen their abductors they should cut any call and phone you
  • If the request for a proper conversation with the victim is refused, disconnect the call and do not answer subsequent calls
  • Alert anyone else likely to be contacted demanding a ransom (family / friends / managers)
  • Immediately make an all-out effort to contact the victim (e.g., call, text, friends, relatives, school, work)
  • If applicable, contact someone who can carry out a physical check of the last place you knew the victim to be (e.g. the hotel’s duty manager)
  • Review any incoming telephone calls and do not answer unknown numbers
  • If prepaid mobile phone credit is demanded, be assured it is a scam – the caller is most likely in jail where phone credit is the lifeblood of the scheme
  • Google the telephone number the extortionist is calling from – many numbers have been posted as being used in extortions

To find out more about how NYA can help you build your capability and prevent the risk of virtual kidnap, contact us here.

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