‘Virtual Kidnapping’ Extortion Calls on the Rise
Recent Trend Targeting Physicians
SOURCE: Federal Bureau of Investigation
San Antonio FBI seeks to warn the public regarding the rise in “virtual kidnapping” extortion schemes and the recent targeting of physicians in South Texas. Over the past several years, San Antonio FBI, along with many state and local law enforcement partners, received reports from the public regarding extortion schemes, often referred to as “virtual kidnappings.” 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.
While the reported number of “virtual kidnapping” extortion schemes appears to be increasing, a recent trend indicates perpetrators of these schemes may be targeting physicians--to include dentists, general practitioners, and various specialists--in South Texas. This year, during the months of June and July, the FBI received multiple reports indicating physicians in McAllen, Laredo, Brownsville, and Del Rio, Texas, were contacted in attempts to collect extortion payments in “virtual kidnapping” schemes.
Due to the rising prevalence of these types of incidents, coupled with the increased victimization of members of the medical community in the Rio Grande Valley and South Texas, the FBI is attempting to raise awareness through liaison efforts with the health care industry and the public at large.
To avoid becoming a victim of this extortion scheme, look for the following possible indicators:
•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:
• 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
If you have any question about whether the call is an extortion scheme or a legitimate kidnapping, contact your nearest FBI office immediately. Anyone with information about these fraud schemes is also encouraged to contact the nearest FBI office:
San Antonio FBI
San Antonio (24 Hour): (210) 225-6741
Brownsville: (956) 546-6922
Del Rio: (830) 775-0076
Laredo: (956) 723-4021
McAllen: (956) 984-6300
Austin: (512) 345-1111
Waco: (254) 772-1627
San Antonio FBI is committed to working with our state and local law enforcement officers to increase public awareness regarding the threat posed by virtual kidnappings, and will continue to investigate and refer these types of cases for prosecution
Tips can also be submitted online at https://tips.fbi.gov. All tipsters may remain anonymous.