Unlike traditional abductions, virtual kidnappers do not intend
to physically detain their victims. Instead, through various
deceptions and threats of violence, they coerce individuals to
isolate themselves from their families—or make families believe that
their loved ones are being held—all to extract a quick ransom before
the scheme falls apart.
“Victims of virtual kidnappings are scared for their lives, and so
are their families,” said Special Agent Brian Wittenberg, a member
of our International Violent Crimes Unit at FBI Headquarters who has
worked many of these cases.
Although these extortion schemes have been around for many years,
their numbers are on the rise, and the criminals’ tactics are
becoming more sophisticated. “It’s big business for them, and they
do it well,” Wittenberg said. “Since the threat is continuing to
evolve, the FBI wants to raise public awareness to help individuals
from becoming victims.”
After completing the rigorous Ironman—a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike
ride, and marathon run—the 73-year-old Ramirez returned to his hotel
room in the evening, called his wife at home in Nevada, and went to
sleep. Around 1 a.m., the phone rang in his room. A man claiming to
be a member of the Zetas, a ruthless drug cartel, said Ramirez was
being “fined” $10,000.
They knew his name and information about him, possibly from
accomplices at the hotel. “They were very believable, and they were
making threats,” Ramirez said, recalling the threats: “If you don’t
listen to us, we are going to put drugs in your hotel room and
you’re going to rot in jail in Mexico. Or we will just put a pistol
to your head and kill you.”
What followed for Ramirez was a nearly
three-day ordeal in which he was instructed to change hotels, buy a
new cell phone—so his wife could not reach him—and withdraw money
from the bank. “And don’t forget, we are watching you,” he was told.
Eventually, his wife contacted local law enforcement who, in turn,
called the FBI. With the help of Mexican police, Ramirez was
Although millions of Americans safely visit Mexico each year for
business and pleasure, they can be targets for virtual kidnappers.
“People with family and connections in Mexico and communities on
both sides of the border have legitimate fears of the gangs and drug
cartels and how violent they are,” said a member of our Crisis
Negotiation Unit who has worked many hostage situations. “That fear
plays into the hands of the virtual kidnappers,” he said. “They use
it to their advantage.”
“If you think you are a victim, get to a place that feels safe, and
then call someone who can help,” said the crisis negotiator. “If you
are a family member or loved one getting ransom calls, remember that
you have more power than you think, because you have the money that
the kidnappers want.” He added that while some families think they
can handle these situations alone, the FBI—which is the lead
investigative agency when a U.S. citizen is taken hostage
overseas—stands ready to offer its expertise and guidance to
frightened families. “We can help,” he said.
In one example of
virtual kidnapping, criminals targeted the parents of a young woman
traveling in Mexico—whose phone and contact information they had
stolen—and told the family they would cut off her fingers unless
money was wired to them immediately. A female accomplice screamed in
the background for effect. (The woman whose phone was taken was
never in danger, and didn’t know of the scheme until she contacted
her family later.)
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For criminals, the success of any type of virtual kidnapping
depends on speed and fear. They know they only have a short time to
exact a ransom payment before the victims and their families unravel
the scam or authorities become involved.
To avoid becoming a
victim, look for these possible indicators:
- Callers go to great lengths to keep you on the phone,
insisting you remain on the line.
- Calls do not come from the victim’s phone.
- Callers try to prevent you from contacting the “kidnapped”
- Multiple successive phone calls.
- Incoming calls made from an outside area code.
- Demands for ransom money to be paid via wire transfer, not
in person; ransom demands may drop quickly.
If you receive a phone call from someone demanding a ransom
for an alleged kidnap victim, the following course of action
should be considered:
- Try to slow the situation down. Request to speak to the
victim directly. Ask, “How do I know my loved one is okay?”
- Ask questions only the victim would know, such as the
name of a pet. Avoid sharing information about you or your
- Listen carefully to the voice of the kidnapped victim if
- Attempt to call, text, or contact the victim via social
media. Request that the victim call back from his or her
- To buy time, repeat the caller’s request and tell them
you are writing down the demand, or tell the caller you need
time to get things moving.
- Don’t directly challenge or argue with the caller. Keep
your voice low and steady.
If you believe you are a victim—like Jose Ramirez—FBI
crisis negotiators suggest that you try to make contact with
family members as quickly as possible, and get yourself to a
place that feels safe.
If you have any question about whether a ransom demand is
a scheme or a legitimate kidnapping, contact your nearest
FBI office immediately. Tips can also be submitted online at
tips.fbi.gov. All tipsters may remain anonymous.
[Taken from the website of the
Federal Bureau of Investigation]