Au­thor­i­ties warn about the rise of vir­tual kid­nap­ping scams

Kuwait Times - - TECHNOLOGY -

The caller who rang Va­lerie So­bel’s cell­phone had a hor­ri­fy­ing mes­sage: “We have Si­mone’s fin­ger. Do you want to see the rest of her in a body bag?” Then came the sound of her daugh­ter, scream­ing in ter­ror. “She called me Mom (and said) ‘I’m ter­ri­fied, please help,’ “So­bel re­called. In the hours that fol­lowed, the kid­nap­pers talked her into wiring $4,000 for ran­som. Only later did she find out there had been no kid­nap­ping. It was a scam. “I was in bad shape for days,” she said.

On Tues­day, po­lice and fed­eral agents warned that so-called vir­tual kid­nap­pings are on the rise, and dozens of peo­ple al­ready have found them­selves ter­ror­ized into giv­ing money to con artists. Los Angeles po­lice alone have re­ceived more than 250 re­ports of such crimes in the past two years, and peo­ple have wired more than $100,000, said Capt. Wil­liam Hayes, who com­mands the Rob­bery Homi­cide Divi­sion. By com­par­i­son, ac­tual kid­nap­pings for ran­som are rare.

Los Angeles po­lice typ­i­cally re­ceive 10 to 15 cases a year, in­clud­ing kid­nap­pings per­formed by other fam­ily mem­bers and ac­quain­tances, Hayes said. In the fake kid­nap­pings, the call­ers de­mand that the vic­tims re­main on the phone so they don’t have a chance to call their loved ones, of­fi­cials said. “If you get a phone call like this, im­me­di­ately hang up,” Hayes said. “Con­tact that loved one.” The FBI be­gan in­ves­ti­gat­ing a spurt of cases in 2013.

A mul­ti­a­gency probe dubbed Op­er­a­tion Ho­tel Tango iden­ti­fied at least 80 peo­ple in sev­eral states who had re­ceived such calls, al­though not all sent money, said Gene Kowel, act­ing spe­cial agent in charge of the FBI’s crim­i­nal divi­sion in Los Angeles. How­ever, many of the crimes go un­re­ported, he said. “It’s fair to say there have been thou­sands of calls made to US vic­tims, pri­mar­ily from Mex­ico,” he said. Last week, a Texas woman be­came the first per­son in the na­tion to be in­dicted in con­nec­tion with a vir­tual kid­nap­ping scheme.

Ran­som de­mands

Yanette Ro­driguez Acosta, 34, of Hous­ton is charged with wire fraud, con­spir­acy to com­mit wire fraud and con­spir­acy to laun­der money. She is fac­ing up to 20 years in prison for each of 10 counts if con­victed. The in­dict­ment al­leges that Acosta and her part­ners used Mex­i­can tele­phone num­bers to call peo­ple in Texas, Cal­i­for­nia and Idaho. They al­legedly fooled peo­ple into giv­ing them tens of thou­sands of dol­lars ei­ther through money drops or wire trans­fers.

In some cases, the scam­mers choose area codes and make cold calls, hop­ing to catch an un­sus­pect­ing vic­tim, of­fi­cials said. In oth­ers, the crooks may use so­cial me­dia to ob­tain names of chil­dren and other facts that can be used to frighten spe­cific vic­tims. In So­bel’s case, she be­lieves the phony kid­nap­pers ob­tained her daugh­ter’s voice, per­haps from her voice­mail, and then al­tered it. “I was con­vinced that this was real,” she said. Fear for a child’s safety can over­ride skep­ti­cism, au­thor­i­ties said.

Even Los Angeles Po­lice De­part­ment Sgt. O.C. Smith was vic­tim­ized. Smith said he re­ceived a cell­phone call about two years ago while driv­ing on a free­way. “There was a woman ... scream­ing ‘Daddy, Daddy help me. I’m in a van be­ing taken some­where,’ “Smith said. Al­though he didn’t rec­og­nize the voice, Smith said he couldn’t take the risk that it was his daugh­ter. The call­ers threat­ened to “put a bul­let in the back of her head” if he didn’t pay a ran­som, Smith said. He talked the phony kid­nap­pers’ ran­som de­mands down from $1 mil­lion to a mere $350, al­though in the end he never paid. While on the phone with them, he man­aged to flag down Tor­rance, Cal­i­for­nia, po­lice of­fi­cers who were able to call and ver­ify that his chil­dren were safe at school.—AP

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