FBI warns of ‘virtual kidnapping scams’ luring people over the Mexico border


Family member kidnapped in Mexico? If you get a call about your mother or brother or grandchild, or are shown a photo, most likely it’s all fake.

Criminals are doing their best to convince you that it’s true, and to fork over cash to pay a ransom.

The FBI, at a news conference Friday, warned of a new twist on a common virtual kidnapping scheme that has been reported in southern Arizona. Criminals are luring U.S. citizens to cross the border into Mexico and then extorting their families.

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Virtual kidnapping is when people are told over the phone that a family member has been kidnapped and then, through deception and threats, criminals coerce them to pay a ransom.

No one is physically kidnapped in these schemes. But on average, a family sends thousands of dollars to the scammers before contacting law enforcement, the FBI said.

Virtual kidnapping has become increasingly more common, but the scheme in which the victim is coaxed across the border only has occurred a few times, officials said.

“Extortionists are calling rooms at U.S. hotels near the border and telling guests that the hotel is surrounded by armed enforcers. The criminals convince the guests to leave their hotel and drive across the border to a Mexico-based hotel,” A joint news release from Arizona, FBI, and Mexico authorities said.

“The extortionist then convinces the victim to video call them and take a screenshot. The criminals will then send the photo to the victim’s family, convince them that their loved one is kidnapped, and coerce them to pay a ransom.”

Victims cross into Mexico on their own, under the fear of death. Those victims say that the threats feel “frighteningly real,” authorities said.

The FBI warns of 'Virtual Kidnapping Scams' luring people over the border at their Phoenix office on May 17, 2019.

The FBI warns of ‘Virtual Kidnapping Scams’ luring people over the border at their Phoenix office on May 17, 2019. 

In one reported case, one person was convinced to stay in a hotel room for multiple nights. In another instance, a group of people armed themselves inside a hotel room thinking there were armed criminals outside, officials said. 

In both cases, investigated by the Nogales Police Department, the people were safely recovered by authorities after they were alerted.

“For the most part, these are easy scams to stop. No one is in danger, nobody is kidnapped,” Special Agent Lance Leising said. “We are seeing it a couple of times, and it is something we think the public should be aware of.” 

Between 2013 and 2015, investigators tracked virtual kidnapping calls from Mexico, many originating from within Mexican prisons.

Officials say criminals may believe that they have more control over people once they lure them across the border into Mexico, thinking it could be easier for them to further extort them or their families.

The FBI warns of 'Virtual Kidnapping Scams' luring people over the border at their Phoenix office on May 17, 2019.

If you get this type of call, whether you think it’s an extortion scheme or a legitimate kidnapping, contact law enforcement immediately.

To avoid becoming a victim, the FBI advises to look for these possible indicators:

  • 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 FBI suggests the following actions:

  • Stay calm.
  • 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 for “proof of life”
  • Ask questions for which only the victim would know answers.
  • Request the kidnapped victim call back from his/her cell phone.
  • Try to use another means of contacting the family member that has allegedly been kidnapped.

“Understand that most of these are scams, nobody’s kidnapped, nobody is in danger no matter how convincing they are. Ask for some proof, try to contact your loved one in another way and contact law enforcement,” Leising said. 

Source: azcentral

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