Virtual Kidnapping

A real crime in Mexico:

"We've got your child," he says in rapid-fire Spanish, usually adding an expletive for effect and then rattling off a list of demands that might include cash or jewels dropped off at a certain street corner or a sizable deposit made to a local bank.

The twist is that little Pablo or Teresa is safe and sound at school, not duct-taped to a chair in a rundown flophouse somewhere or stuffed in the back of a pirate taxi. But when the cellphone call comes in, that is not at all clear.

[...]

But identifying the phone numbers — they are now listed on a government Web site — has done little to slow the extortion calls. Nearly all the calls are from cellphones, most of them stolen, authorities say.

On top of that, many extortionists are believed to be pulling off the scams from prisons.

Authorities say hundreds of different criminal gangs are engaged in various telephone scams. Besides the false kidnappings, callers falsely tell people they have won cars or money. Sometimes, people are told to turn off their cellphones for an hour so the service can be repaired; then, relatives are called and told that the cellphone’s owner has been kidnapped. Ransom demands have even been made by text message.

Posted on April 29, 2008 at 5:29 AM • 39 Comments

Comments

MarcApril 29, 2008 5:39 AM

That's what "proof of life"-questions are for. But in a society like Mexico large parts of the population have no access to assistance by experts (neither police nor private counsel) and think they are on their own to deal with the situation.

LuisApril 29, 2008 6:08 AM

@ Marc:

I don't think that poor people are the main target for ransom demands. more wealthy or even middle class do have access at least to the police.

I think this works, basicly, because when crisis strike panic takes over and all the common sense and rational thought goes down the drain.

GordonSApril 29, 2008 6:45 AM

I have a colleague in Brazil who was subjected to exactly this kind of thing a couple years ago. In his case it didn't work, as he phoned his wife straight away and learned that his child was still safely at home.

Apparently this scam has been going on for years in Brazl.

I agree with Marc; when this works it is because panic ensues and rational thinking goes out the window.

MiguelApril 29, 2008 7:12 AM

I received one of this calls once. It was an interesting case of social engineering. They call to random numbers, and extract information from the victim.
A man called my home phone saying he was a police officer. There was a street accident, and one of the people involved in it had my phone number. He was not there, so he could not give me details. He didn't know the age or sex of those involved.
My children were at school, but they were having an excursion that day, so it could be them. I suspected something, but i could not be sure. I finally gave him their names.
Then the voice changed, and said they had my children, and that if I wanted to see them again, I should pay.
I realized it was a scam, so I hanged up, and called the police.

@Marc
The victims are usually poor.
Most of the time the calls come from public phones located at prisons. They don't ask for money. They ask the victim to buy prepaid phone cards, and give them their numbers. The amounts involved are pretty low.

For the criminal, the risk is very low: all the transaction is done using a public phone (the criminal never meets the victim). Besides, he is already in jail.

Humberto MassaApril 29, 2008 7:19 AM

This is an old scam down here in Brasil, too (for the last five years or so). It's mainly not about kids, but about your teen/adult children. They even tried it with my dad. "Oh, I'm here with your oldest son, what's his name?" "Humberto?" "Yes, and he has been run by a car / I have him in captivity"... the other shoe dropped, and my dad hang up the phone.

LollardfishApril 29, 2008 7:42 AM

If the scam is not new, as the Brasilian examples seem to suggest, the what makes it so effective in Mexico is the reality of kidnapping. Kidnapping is endemic and well-covered by the Mexican media (to my understanding), so people are more prone to respond to the fake kidnapping.

Arturo ServinApril 29, 2008 7:45 AM

I have another one, it is also in Mexico. It is my blog but it is in spanish.

Basically the scammers do social engineering by calling you to your mobile phone. They say that your phone has been cloned (very common there) and they are calling from the mobile carrier. They ask to turn off your mobile while they fix the problem.

Meanwhile your phone is turned off, they call your family and they say you have been kidnapped. They ask for small amounts (around 1,000 to 2,000 usd). When your family tries to call you you have your phone turned off and they just get panicked.

Original post:
http://ablog.julius.dnsdojo.org/wpmu/2008/03/06/...

SejanusApril 29, 2008 7:49 AM

Those kind of crimes are quite common in my country, Lithuania. You get a call about your child in problem and you are required to give some ammount of money.

Targets ussualy are old people.

Omar HerreraApril 29, 2008 8:14 AM

@Arturo Servin
Basically the scammers do social engineering by calling you to your mobile phone. They say that your phone has been cloned (very common there) and they are calling from the mobile carrier. They ask to turn off your mobile while they fix the problem.

True, I've heard of similar stories, but I doubt it is as widespread as the "I have your child scam", because it is ore complex; for a start, they need the cell phone number of the person that supposedly is kidnapped and the phone number of the family. Thus, the virtual kidnapper should know you well (usually a friend or even a member of the family). It is not uncommon to see family members getting involved in real kidnappings in Mexico.

We also lack a security culture in Mexico. Many times when you answer the phone the caller ask "Who am I talking to?" The majority of the people answers with their real name. Once they have your name they have a lot of possibilities to trick you or your family.

Victor BogadoApril 29, 2008 8:44 AM

I live in Brazil, and we have those by the ton, I wouldn't be surprised if this category of crime were created here.

I once received one of those, they call late at night and "to charge". I was sleepy and until I found out what the heck was going on, they said they had my son witch is hard since I had none. When I said that they amended to my brother (call your father, ha, second mistake).

The first fing that came through my mind was that this was a wrong number, by the time I found out that it was a scam I hanged the phone. The funny part was that later I commented with a friend and he to ohave received a charge phone call witch he simply hanged up, in the same night but much later. My phone is registered in my father's name "Alcides" and my friend's name is "Alessandro", it seems to me that they were following the phone list.

BrunoApril 29, 2008 8:48 AM

They usually do a cold reading: they have somebody screaming or crying at the end of the line and people usually say their child's name by accident. Then they milk this information and play with your fears.

My mother-in-law (educated and with knowledge about the scam) fell for it here in Brazil. When there is the slight possibility that it is your daughter, rationality flies out the window. It is incredible. When we asked her afterward why she fell for it, she told us: "it was raining in the morning and my daughter left a bit late, so I thought that something might have happened." Something out of the ordinary had this effect on her.

acdcApril 29, 2008 8:54 AM

insightful, a horrid idea.
wonder when other countries will be hit with this.

Miguel AlmeidaApril 29, 2008 10:06 AM

I hadn't heard of this scam before and I must confess I find it rather clever... But after reading your replies, specially the ones from Brazil, I wonder how can it be effective if they've been doing it for years now. I mean, surely a lot of people already know these things are happening all the time, right? Do they still succeed? Large scale?

thiefhunterApril 29, 2008 10:13 AM

"In Argentina, where the drastic economic situation has bred creativity, express kidnappers are dressing up as market researchers, complete with clipboards, and interviewing people in line at cinemas. In this simple way, they manage to get the names and addresses of people going in to the movie. They then contact the subjects’ families, claim the relative has been kidnapped, and extract ransom money—all while the supposedly-kidnapped person is just watching a movie. The lesson here points to the importance of privacy and power of greed. Why do those movie-goers provide their personal information to strangers? Undoubtedly, they’re promised a “free gift” will be sent."

Quoted from my book, Travel Advisory: How to Avoid Thefts, Cons, and Street Scams. Read a bit of it at http://bobarno.com/thiefhunters

BrunoApril 29, 2008 10:22 AM

@Miguel
I don't believe they work in a large scale -- but they do work consistently for it to be still used (as Brazilians know, this has been happening for at least a couple of years already). But the costs are very low for the criminals: they try several times and eventually they succeed. As somebody previously said, you have to remember that people in Brazil, Mexico, etc. already live under constant security threats, i.e., they are already predisposed to think the worst. Especially old people tend to believe it.

DavidApril 29, 2008 10:39 AM

Miquel: I think the reason that this scam is successful after all of these year is the same reason that the "Nigerian Prince" phishing scams still work. They don't have to fool most people, only one or two percent. It doesn't take long to make a phone call, and the payoff for scamming one victim could be huge. it's all about the ROI.

Terry ClothApril 29, 2008 10:48 AM

@Paul Renault:

Thanks for pointing that out---it's truly inspired. Do you know when it was posted? I see nothing on the page or in its source.

ObvioApril 29, 2008 11:12 AM

So, call the school and verify that little Pablo or Teresa is safe and sound at school, and then don't pay the ransom, since the child hasn't been kidnapped.

Is that technique truly that difficult to figure out?

Miguel AlmeidaApril 29, 2008 11:12 AM

@Bruno and David

You're right... People are frightened already and, sure, volume does count. Specially if you invest almost nothing and the prize is potentially high.

Thomas SApril 29, 2008 11:18 AM

@Terry Cloth
xkcd is normally updated every M,W,F. As of today (Tuesday April 29th) the strip is on the front page, though Paul Renault provided a long term link for the specific strip. Incidentally, the xkcd archives have a number of other cute commentaries on computer security. e.g. http://www.xkcd.com/327/

AnonymousApril 29, 2008 11:27 AM

@Terry Cloth

Posted yesterday. It's the most recent comic, and xkcd has new comics MWF.

ObvioApril 29, 2008 11:38 AM

@thiefhunter

This is a huge problem. The government should nationalize your book and give it away for free. People have a right to know!

Even better, why not spend a few billion taxpayer pesos on a public awareness campaign for the galactically stupid?

Here are a few other dangerous scams to warn against:

1.) If someone tells you that he owns that big building over there, but has to sell it fast because his kid is sick, and he'll give it to you cheap, whatever you have in your bank account, don't give him your money.

2.) If someone tells you the government has changed the color of money, and yours needs to be traded in for new script, and he'll take it to the bank for you and come right back with the new, don't give him your money.

3.) If someone tells you that aliens have invaded, and there's a spaceship waiting to take you to the moon with the rest of the surviving humans, and he can sell you the last ticket for a seat on the ship for whatever you have in your bank account, don't give him your money.

BrunoApril 29, 2008 11:38 AM

@Obvio
Not always your son/daughter is a child. They also keep you on the line and tell you not to call anybody while they are talking to you. In the case of my mother-in-law, she was told not to call my wife's number or they would kill her.

She just panicked and caved in.

Shunichi AraiApril 29, 2008 12:49 PM

I live in Japan, and there are many telephone/web scams here too.

One is "Oreore Sagi", scamer pretends callee's son, and scamer says that he is in distress, and money is needed to be bank-transfered.

And there are many other scams, but probably those are same with other countries' scams. such as false adult site bills, etc...

anonApril 29, 2008 1:54 PM

One way to counter this is to arrange an authenticating distress code with your family ahead of time. Suppose you pick the code Elmer's Glue. When you get a call saying your son/daughter was kidnapped, tell the "captor" to ask for the distress code. If they respond with Elmer's Glue, it's real. If not, tell them to fuck off and hang up.

RofloApril 29, 2008 4:15 PM

One thing that nobody's mentioned yet..

.. in Mexico, most people don't trust the police.

It really doesn't matter if they have "access" to the police. In fact, most people even believe that the police is involved in many real kidnappings.

AnonymousApril 30, 2008 12:55 AM

"but I doubt it is as widespread as the "I have your child scam", because it is ore complex; for a start, they need the cell phone number of the person that supposedly is kidnapped and the phone number of the family. Thus, the virtual kidnapper should know you well (usually a friend or even a member of the family)."


No, it is not neccessary at all. You'd be surprised how many people give away their money without even trying to confirm anything. People are gullible in general, and even more so when it comes to their children. Especially old ones. That's the sad fact.

RofloApril 30, 2008 8:59 AM

There used to be another clever "I have your child" scam. It was supposedly used in Mexico too.

They would look for a teenager girl just outside the movies and tell her that they worked for a modeling agency.
They would ask to take a couple of photographs and they would ask for their home number and some basic information.

The photographs served as a proof of life and they had real names and phone numbers. And with a bit of luck, cellphones were off during the movie for the next couple of hours.

Sue YoungApril 30, 2008 10:45 AM

My family had a jewelry supply store until 5 years ago. We were warned about this in the 70's. A jewelry store owner's family would get a call to keep their phone off the hook for an hour then the threat would be called in to the store. All our close relatives were warned not to take the phone off the hook and to call the police if they get a request to do it. Never happened of course. We didn't have enough gold or diamonds to bother with.

SmellyApril 30, 2008 2:22 PM

So part of this scam relies on the assumption that people can be intimidated against asking for confirmation of the hostage: eg, you ask "Let me speak to Pablo," and they say, "No. Ask again and I'll just kill him."

Ordinarily that's how you detect the scam, but if a gang wanted to invest in making it work, all they would need to do is actually kidnap a few children and execute them when the stricken parents ask for confirmation. After that hit the news, no one would dare press the kidnappers for details, and payments would increase dramatically.

Scary.

SmellyApril 30, 2008 2:22 PM

So part of this scam relies on the assumption that people can be intimidated against asking for confirmation of the hostage: eg, you ask "Let me speak to Pablo," and they say, "No. Ask again and I'll just kill him."

Ordinarily that's how you detect the scam, but if a gang wanted to invest in making it work, all they would need to do is actually kidnap a few children and execute them when the stricken parents ask for confirmation. After that hit the news, no one would dare press the kidnappers for details, and payments would increase dramatically.

Scary.

Ping-Che ChenApril 30, 2008 2:41 PM

These scams are also common in Taiwan. One day my phone rang, I picked it up, said "Hello?", then the scammer cried "Dad, dad, I'm in trouble!" very passionately :) Of course, since I don't have a son, I didn't fell for it.

There are other similar scams, some originate from Japan. For example, there are reports that some received call from "an old friend" saying "guess who I am?" trying to get a name, then, try to borrow some money. It's quite surprising that such simple scam works.

JY fMay 8, 2008 11:13 AM

I live in Korea, and I'm very surprized

to come here and come to know how commom this kind of scam is .

The reason why I ended up being here

today was to get information about

how to survive "kidnapping" cause yersterday, I got a phone call and fell

for it..for three hours, I thought my

baby sister was kiddnapped by the caller

cause I couldn't reach her since her phone had been broken a day ago..

Now, it's a big issue in Korea cause

a month ago, one of the famous online

shopping mall was hackered, and all

the information of 20millions of users

Yeb, you heard me, 20 millions..

I don't think I would forget that voice..

It was really terrible.

James LickMay 9, 2008 12:10 AM

This is also a very common scam in Taiwan. Scams like this got so bad that the government made banks put a limit of around US$1000 per transaction at an ATM to limit the damage and requiring ID to get a cell phone account opened, but people still fall for these things. Other scams include callers claiming that the recipient forgot to pay their phone/gas/electric/tax bill and they need to do it today or will get a huge fine; the recipient is due a "refund" for something and given instructions on how to get the refund through an ATM but the instructions tell how to send, not receive money; someone pretending to be a relative or old friend is in trouble and urgently needs to borrow some money, etc. Unbelievably there is also a scam where someone calls claiming to be a police investigator claiming that the recipient's bank account is trying to be fraudulently accessed. The caller then offers to assist the person is transferring the money to a safe account, or that the police need to impound their account for protection. People then actually go and transfer all their money to the con-man based on that flimsy story.

perdeDecember 8, 2008 2:17 PM

One way to counter this is to arrange an authenticating distress code with your family ahead of time. Suppose you pick the code Elmer's Glue. When you get a call saying your son/daughter was kidnapped, tell the "captor" to ask for the distress code. If they respond with Elmer's Glue, it's real. If not, tell them to fuck off and hang up

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