‘Virtual Kidnapping’ Extortion Calls on the Rise

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.

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