Virtual Kidnapping

This is a harrowing story of a scam artist that convinced a mother that her daughter had been kidnapped. More stories are here. It’s unclear if these virtual kidnappers use data about their victims, or just call people at random and hope to get lucky. Still, it’s a new criminal use of smartphones and ubiquitous information.

Reminds me of the scammers who call low-wage workers at retail establishments late at night and convince them to do outlandish and occasionally dangerous things.

Posted on October 17, 2016 at 6:28 AM20 Comments


Marcelo Rinesi October 17, 2016 7:06 AM

This is an intermittently frequent MO in Argentina, which IIRC predates (but might be facilitated by) widespread usage of online social networks and smartphones.

Sometimes it’s even performed by people calling from inside jails, although the state of the security forces being what it is in the country, that’s less surprising that it might seem (prisoners being given daily “leaves of absence” from jail to commit crimes in exchange for a cut isn’t precisely unheard of).

AlanS October 17, 2016 8:27 AM

This happened to my family a few years ago. My oldest son got a call on his cell phone when he was in high school. The caller told him that his younger brother, who attended a different school, had been kidnapped and he had to wire money immediately or his brother would be killed. It freaked him out but he’d developed enough skepticism to know that it was probably fake. And I suspect the caller also figured out fairly quickly that my son wasn’t the sort of target he was looking for. The police told us they’d dealt with a number of these type of incidents previously but in most cases, as in this case, there wasn’t much they could do as the caller couldn’t be traced.

Jason October 17, 2016 8:31 AM

For many years, when land line phone service was all that was available, I suffered through the “Verizon Attitude” (total arrogance) as well as the opportunity to pay outrageous long distance charges to call the town ten miles away. When technology advanced enough to give me an alternative, VOIP, I jumped on it. By setting up an Asterisk PBX in my home, I finally tamed the beast and forced the telephone to work for me, instead of every scammer in the world. I no longer answer the phone when I’m busy, only to hear “Rachael from Card Services” tell me this is the last chance to lower my interest rate, or “I’m calling from Windows” to tell me my computer has a virus that they can fix for only $90.

Any call coming into the system with a blocked or unavailable caller ID receives a “we do not accept blocked calls” message followed by a hangup. They are not allowed to leave a message. The incoming number is checked for the correct number of digits (10) as well as valid area and office codes. Any call failing this test gets the same message. The incoming call is then checked against a block list, failing this test gets a “we will not accept your call” message followed by a hangup, again not allowed to leave a message. The call is then checked against a white list, separated into family, friends, and business groups, each of which has a distinctive ring. Any phone number not in the white list immediately goes to voice mail. A family member calling from an unknown phone? No problem, they just enter a pass code to get through.

Hey, it’s worked for me. The phone that I am paying for is finally under my control.

JP October 17, 2016 8:34 AM

Yeah, not exactly breaking news in that regard. The same thing happens regularly in Brazil and most calls are known to come from inside a prison. A friend of mine answered as if he was a criminal himself, asked how long until the caller gets paroled, etc. They chatted friendly for a minute and the perp went on to find his next victim.

My father was a target once, too. He immediately recognized the voice claiming “Daddy, I’ve been kidnapped” didn’t belong to me or my brothers so he just pretended to believe in the perp for a while. He even insulted the caller-pretending-to-be-his-son a few times saying he was “stupid enough to be kidnapped” and “I hope they don’t realize that you’re such a flamboyant gay”. He also kept frustrating them by haggling, saying that son was worth much less than his brothers so all he was willing to pay was far less than what they were asking…

He eventually got tired of stringing them along and said “You know what? I’ve never liked my son that much. You should keep him” and hung up.

The lesson I take from this is that these criminals are not much bright or well equipped and they just happen to prey on people’s panic. Occasionally they get lucky, but that’s not exactly a reliable or fool-proof con.

Tatütata October 17, 2016 9:13 AM

There is a similar scam practiced in German-speaking countries. I also heard of it being played in places like Canada, but it’s not clear whether it is as prevalent.

In a nutshell:

Scammers look for potential marks in the telephone directory by looking for first names like Gertrud or Hilde, suggesting an elderly lady living alone.

A called is placed with an accomplice opening on the lines of : “Hi grandma, guess who’s calling? Don’t you recognize my voice? It’s me, your granddaughter!” (It can also be “aunt” and “niece”).

If the potential victim ventures a name, then she’s hooked and the reeling-in begins. A tale is spun about the caller being in town, and in immediate need of money. The story could be that the granddaughter found an exceptional deal for buying a car that can’t wait (large cash transactions are all too common in the used car trade). Since she can’t budge from the seller’s place, a “friend” will come around to get the cash once the mark will have gone to the bank.

Many variations of the tale are known: car accident, hospital stay, some debt that must be settled at once.

The tone isn’t as dramatic as for an alleged kidnapping, but the criminals have been known to post sentries near the mark’s place to check that she actually makes that trip to the bank (or pawn shop or whatever), and wait for her when she returns.

The plot is sometimes foiled by bank employees asking why Gertrud or Hilde are in sudden need of money, or by the senior herself, who immediately calls the police after hanging up.

There are reports of the con being played on Russian and Polish immigrants in their first language.

-stephen October 17, 2016 9:46 AM

@JP Please see the short story “The Ransom of Red Chief” by O. Henry. Two men kidnap a boy who’s a handful more than they reckoned and they end up paying the father to take him back.

Peter A. October 17, 2016 9:54 AM

Aaaah, where are those times when we used to part with our relatives for days or weeks on end, only able to exchange letters, and did not panic at all?

I feel so old now… back to my cave…

Kieran October 17, 2016 10:12 AM

This (via phone call rather than social networks) is a common use of stolen mobile phones in Nairobi; my girlfriend’s parents got calls like this when she lived over there. Thankfully she had already told them that phone had been stolen.

Bob Halloran October 17, 2016 12:25 PM

My mother was the almost-victim of one of these; she got a call at home from a younger male voice claiming to be one of my nephews, that he had been arrested in Mexico for and needed money wired down for bail. Being nervous, she went to the local Western Union counter and thankfully was talked out of it by the clerk before she lost a pile of money to some scam thug.

My Info October 17, 2016 6:26 PM

When they can’t collect enough money from the fake kidnappings, then the real kidnappings start, and when they still aren’t satisfied, the dead and mutilated bodies start being left in piles as a warning.

Between this and the heroin and all the other drugs, alcohol, sex, and lies going on, what’s left of our country?

Half the apartments in any big city in the U.S. are empty and abandoned to drug dealers who have gladly taken them over, and there are long wait lists for housing. Food lines are getting longer, prices are going up, and the Fed insists inflation is low.

The Mob won’t let anyone get a real job, and people have cars, money, property, ID, and even toiletries stolen and robbed on a regular basis. If you complain, the Mob takes your rights away for life and commits you to a nuthouse if they can’t find some excuse in our nation’s mockery of due process to put you in jail or prison.

It puts the Prohibition-era gangsters like Al Capone to shame, and really it all goes back to Vladimir Putin and his cronies, the vory v zakone or thieves in law, who are now doing to the U.S. what Ronald Reagan did to the U.S.S.R.: bankrupting the nation. Wake up, people! Anura and Wael, it’s all too real.

CallMeLateForSupper October 18, 2016 10:18 AM

“Between this and the heroin and all the other drugs, alcohol, sex, and lies going on, what’s left of our country?”

Election 2016 (it won’t be over even when it’s over). And rock & roll (“I don’t care what people say; rock & roll is here to stay.”). Not necessarily in that order.

Freezing October 18, 2016 2:16 PM

Seems like another Brazilian contribution to the world.

Once I received a similar call. The guy on the other side [sounded like a young male] said he was in possession of my son*. He wanted a six-figure ransom. I said you please kill this shitbag right now, because hes a loser and an embarrassment to the family. Thank you for your assistance. Have a good day.`

He really picked the wrong guy to make this kind of trick.

(*) I`m a fruitless tree; never had children. 😉

Khavren October 18, 2016 2:49 PM

Spanish Prisoner variant where it’s someone you know that needs to be released vs some rich famous person

Miguel Farah October 19, 2016 6:09 AM

This kind of scam is all too common as well in my country (Chile), where it regularly makes the news whenever someone falls for it, where it’s stressed to be skeptical and ask for some questions back to verify the truth of the matter (“What is MY name?”, etc.).

To combat this, scammers have added a new tactic: call in the dead of night, to take advantage of people being half-asleep when answering and therefore being easier targets. It’s gotten so bad that some people have begun routinely muting their phones for the night… which makes it impossible to contact them on an actual emergency.

Alvy October 20, 2016 4:43 AM

In Spain there have been lots of news about this kind of scam, also some police work because of people falling for it (but I can’t say wether it’s more common than other kind of situations / problems, probably not). The Police said the calls are made at random, originating from South America, sometimes even from inside prisons. If the scammers are lucky they may find a person with children and then ‘cold reading’ them with menacing phrases in a matter of minuts they can gather all kinds of data (name, age, etc) for building a story around it. They they ask for a money transfer.

Grandson October 21, 2016 4:17 PM

Someone attempted a similar scam on my eighty year-old great aunt when I was traveling to visit her. In this case, the scammers had almost certainly hacked her computer and obtained email access. They knew my name as well as the time and date of when I was arriving, but did not know the method of travel (I was taking a train). They called my great aunt while I was in transit, claiming to be me in a strange room and that while driving to the airport I had been detained by unknown people for possession of drugs and needed money to get out. Luckily she knew I was not flying and hung up… A terrifying avenue of attack, especially on the elderly, that I imagine is more common than suspected.

MikePoland October 24, 2016 11:09 AM

@Tatütata It’s also a fairly common scam in Poland, in fact I’ve recently read about a gang of Polish scammers who moved their operations to Germany after realizing there was much more money to be made there. It has appeared even in Japan, called there “It’s me”.

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