Criminals are using technology to scam people out of their money via virtual kidnappings, the Federal Bureau of Investigation warns.
The fake abductions are basically a twist on old extortion plots that originated in Mexico, federal officials said in a recent alert on FBI.gov. What started as a get-money-quick scheme targeting wealthy Mexicans has morphed into a crude scam entrapping Americans of all social standings.
“In 2015, the calls started coming in English,” FBI Los Angeles Special Agent Erik Arbuthnot says on the agency’s website. “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.”
FBI warns of virtual kidnapping scam targeting Americans
This is how the scheme works: Crooks, in many cases inmates, will bribe prison guards to get cell phones, then search online to learn area codes and telephone dialing prefixes, the FBI says.
The felons don’t have to know who they’re calling; they have the time and persistence to randomly dial hundreds of numbers until they find an unsuspecting victim on the line.
This is how the FBI describes the virtual kidnapping scam:
“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.”
In most cases, “the intended victims quickly learned that ‘Mary’ was at home or at school, or they sensed the scam and hung up,” Arbuthnot said. “This fraud only worked when people picked up the phone, they had a daughter, and she was not home.”
But the chilling reality is that people are falling for it and being victimized out of thousands of dollars. “If you are making hundreds of calls, the crime will eventually work,” he said.
While most ransom payments are up to $2,000, the legal limit for wire transfers to Mexico, a victim in Houston was swindled out of $28,000, the FBI said.
Authorities were able to arrest Yanette Rodriguez Acosta, 34, of Houston and charge her with money laundering, the agency said. In July 2017, her case represented the first federal indictment in a virtual kidnapping case, the FBI said.
According to the indictment, Acosta’s co-conspirators called numerous victims throughout the United States in Texas, California and Idaho, telling them that their child had been kidnapped. The callers told the families that the only way to ensure safe release was by paying a ransom, the agency said.
“These types of cases are tragic,” said Acting U.S. Attorney Abe Martinez of the Southern District of Texas in a news release on the Acosta case in July. “It’s not the amount of money involved; it’s the fact that these people are tricked into believing their loved ones are in danger and the horror and helplessness they feel as they scramble to secure what they think is their release. It is important for people to know about these scams and to be cautious and mindful when getting these types of calls.”
To protect yourself from these scams, the FBI said here are five tips that you should follow:
- The best thing to do usually is to hang up
- If you stay on the call, don’t call out your loved one’s name
- Request to speak to your loved one directly. Ask “How do I know my loved one is OK?”
- Ask questions only the alleged victim would know, such as the name of a pet
- No matter what, do not share information about you or your family