The word alone conjures up images of political figures or the children of high society parents being snatched off the street and held in windowless warehouses. The kidnappers contact the organization or the family with a request to extort millions of dollars in exchange for the safe return of the victim. Eventually, Liam Neeson arrives on the scene, the victim is safely returned and the bad guys are arrested.  

Kidnapping has always been a very high-risk crime, and many high-profile attempts have been thwarted. Filled with intrigue, it’s been the subject of many movies and television dramas. But, that’s just the movies. In real life there’s a new kind of kidnapping that’s on the rise, and businesses need the right tools to protect their employees.

Technology has changed kidnapping

Like many criminal activities, kidnapping has evolved with technology, and kidnapping today is, unfortunately, far more widespread than you might think. A new wave of “virtual” kidnapping is worrying the FBI and other law enforcement agencies.

Here’s how it works: The criminal waits until they know the potential victim is somewhere they cannot be reached, like on a plane, or they lure them to a remote place with no cellphone service. The criminal then calls the victim’s company or family, and using details gleaned from social media, convinces them that the person has been abducted and is being held. They may even be able to replicate the sound of the victim screaming or begging for help. Remember that Ice Bucket Challenge video you posted to Facebook last year? Your screams are in the public domain.

The criminal then tells the family or organization that they must wire transfer money to secure the release of the victim. The amount of money may be relatively small — perhaps $5,000 or $10,000. Many people can quickly get their hands on that amount of money, and it arouses less suspicion than a demand for millions.

Dialing for dollars

In a somewhat less sophisticated version of the scheme, criminals just dial phone numbers at random and say that they are holding a spouse, child or other loved one. Once they find someone to take the bait, they keep them on the phone (to prevent them from calling to check on the person’s whereabouts) until they send the money.

In either scenario, the kidnapper never has actual contact with the victim. The person being extorted is told they need to stay on the phone until the money is sent. These are the two ways in which virtual kidnapping differs from a crime in which someone is actually abducted.

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Traveling alone

Employees need to know what to do in virtual kidnap situation. (Photo: Thinkstock)

Travelers may be at additional risk

Those who travel, whether for business or pleasure, should be aware of the risk of virtual kidnapping. The crime is prevalent in Mexico and Southeast Asia, so travelers to those areas should be particularly vigilant. In the United States, virtual kidnapping is spreading, with law enforcement agencies in New York, Florida, Georgia and Texas recently issuing warnings about the crime.

Companies have an obligation to keep their employees safe while they are working, whether that takes place in the office, on the road domestically or overseas. It’s important for employers to educate their employees as to what to do in a virtual kidnap situation without alarming them unnecessarily.

Responding to a virtual ransom demand

Control Risks, a global risk consultancy that provides kidnap and ransom prevention and crisis management services, reports that virtual kidnap schemes usually share these characteristics:

  • The victim receives a phone call with instructions that they will be in danger if they don’t follow the instructions, which often include moving to another location and not talking to anyone. They may be instructed to leave their mobile phone behind.
  • The kidnappers may demand that the mark use a prepaid mobile phone to stay in constant contact with them. The mark will often be instructed to stay on the phone the entire time.
  • A relative or employer will be contacted and instructed to pay a ransom immediately, by wire transfer or deposit.
  • Requests to speak to or see the victim to establish their safety will be refused.

Control Risks advises that any ransom demand should be treated as an actual kidnapping, until it is proven to be a hoax, and that anyone who is contacted for a ransom payment should seek professional advice.

Insuring against virtual kidnapping

Just as the crime of kidnapping affects companies of all sizes around the globe, virtual kidnapping can do the same. Companies can help protect their employees against both kidnapping and virtual kidnapping by having a robust kidnap and ransom policy in place. With such a program in effect, policyholders will have access to expert assistance and advice in the event of an incident.

Virtual kidnapping is on the rise, but awareness of how it works and having procedures in place to respond quickly and appropriately will go a long way in protecting employees and their family members.

Kevin Henry serves as the underwriting leader — kidnap and ransom for Hiscox USA.

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