Filed Under:Risk Management, Cybersecurity

The real risk of virtual kidnapping at home and abroad

Dangerous, sophisticated fraud

Although virtual kidnapping schemes have been around for many years, their numbers are on the rise and fraudsters' tactics are getting more sophisticated. (Photo: iStock)
Although virtual kidnapping schemes have been around for many years, their numbers are on the rise and fraudsters' tactics are getting more sophisticated. (Photo: iStock)

Recently, the U.S. Department of State issued a travel advisory to U.S. citizens about the risk of traveling to certain parts of Mexico due to the activities of criminal organizations in those areas.

According to the warning, in various Mexican states, U.S. citizens have been the victims of violent crimes including homicide, carjacking, robbery and kidnapping, along with a relatively new crime wave involving "virtual kidnapping."

Related: Virtual kidnapping: What you need to know

Virtual kidnapping is an extortion-by-deception scheme in which a call comes in from a stranger, claiming a loved one has been taken and will be harmed, or worse, unless the caller’s instructions are followed exactly and a ransom is paid.

Perpetrators use personal information available publicly, such as names, numbers, school or work affiliations and sometimes whereabouts, through social media or Internet searches, to trick victims into believing that an actual kidnapping has occurred.

Using these personal details, they make a kidnapping scenario sound plausible and insist that the victim remain on the phone with them until after making payment. What makes such crimes easier to commit is if victims are unable or reluctant to contact the person claimed to be held, out of fear that the caller will harm the supposedly 'captive' family member.

Related: Data breaches in 2017: No relief in sight

Trending upward

Although virtual kidnapping schemes have been around for many years, their numbers are on the rise, and the criminals' tactics are becoming more sophisticated.

According to the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation, the trend in virtual kidnapping began years ago in Mexico when criminals noted names and phone numbers on tourists' luggage tags. Realizing that tourists boarding buses would spend several hours in areas where cell phone service was spotty or nonexistent, the criminals began trying to extort ransoms from the tourists’ family members before their families could contact them. Success emboldened the perpetrators to make more attempts.

Related: 8 steps to negotiate kidnap & ransom demands

More innovative attempts

And, as the State Department warns, hotel guests have been targets of such virtual kidnapping schemes in Mexico. But, virtual kidnapping is not confined to Mexico; it’s a worldwide phenomenon.

The FBI has warned that virtual kidnapping is on the rise, with recent cases reported in New York, California, Virginia and other states. 

Recently, female Chinese exchange students in Canada were aggressively targeted. They were initially contacted through an automated phone message that urges them to call Chinese officials after being told their personal information had been compromised and they are now connected to crimes in China.  The suspects, who claim they are Chinese government officials, then coerce the victims into a series of actions and if they don’t comply, they’re told their families back in China will be hurt. Simultaneously, the victims’ parents are contacted and convinced their family members are being held against their will and another demand for money is made.

One of the reasons that virtual kidnapping is becoming more frequent is that it costs almost nothing to perpetrate, can be attempted against anyone and usually tries to extort payments that a majority of people can afford. In recent cases, the FBI has noted extortion demands ranging from $600 to $1,900, though in some cases in Maryland and Virginia, victims were asked to wire $10,000 or more.

Related: The Chalkboard: A look at kidnap and ransom insurance

Quickly playing on fears

Virtual kidnapping is effective because it plays to most people’s worst fears. Its success also depends on speed. These criminals know they only have a short time to exact a ransom payment before the victims and their families unravel the scam or call authorities.

Among the characteristics that typically signify virtual kidnapping, callers:

          • Use an outside area code.
          • Do not use the phone of the person they claim to hold.
          • Prolong the call as much as possible.
          • Prevent calling or locating the person held captive.
          • Insist on ransom payments via wire transfer.

The FBI and private-sector security advisors recommend that victims who suspect virtual kidnapping:

          • Resist the urge to act in haste. Perpetrators rely on extorting ransom as quickly as possible, before victims can uncover the ruse.
          • Attempt to contact the captives. Use the person’s mobile number or social media, if applicable.
          • Ask callers about something only their claimed captive would know.
          • Do not send money via wire from a phone or e-mail request, especially internationally.

Kidnap, ransom and extortion (KRE) insurance responds to cases involving virtual or actual kidnapping, reimbursing the victim for ransom paid and lost.  Although the kidnapping may be virtual, the risks of such extortion and the potential loss of ransom payments are quite real.

Denise Balan is senior vice president and head of XL Catlin's Kidnap, Ransom & Extortion practice in North America. She can be reached at


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