Virtual Kidnapping on the Rise

The newest form of kidnapping, known as internet kidnapping, has unfortunately become a commonplace event.  Unlike traditional kidnapping, no one was is actually taken, but rather internet kidnapping is a scheme used to steal money.  The scheme involves a caller convincing victims that their child has been taken and laying out a series of demands.  Most commonly, the victim is a wealthy individual.

It happened just recently in Los Angeles.  Jamey Heath, a Los Angeles music producer, received a call from someone saying they had his son.  All he could hear was crying and screaming in the background, with the person saying that they had a gun to his son.  Heath was told by the caller to go his bank and withdraw money if he ever wanted to see his son alive again.  What he didn’t know at the time, was that his son was safe, and the caller had never even met his son.

FBI Special Agent Erik Arbuthnot has become all too familiar with internet kidnapping.  He said, “It could happen to anybody.  They’re calling across the United States, and the FBI really doesn’t want victims to feel ashamed in reporting it. We’ve seen police officers, police detectives, architects, doctors, attorneys, professional people have gotten these calls — truly feared that their loved one was kidnapped and have made the payment.”  Despite the plea to encourage that this crime is reported, it tends to be one of the most underreported crimes.  The FBI cites that many victims are embarrassed to admit that it happens to them, even after they find their child is safe.

In recent months, the FBI has been looking into the source of the calls.  In their study, they noted that the Beverly Hills area has been the hardest hit area due to it being a high wealth area.  They also noted that a large proportion of the calls are actually coming from prisoners in Mexico.  In most cases, the inmates at these prisons are able to smuggle in cell phones and carry out the extortion calls as part of a wider organizational crime group that exists within the prison.  Lauda Negrete, a senior researcher with the World Justice Program, did some research on the issue and noted that inmates typically bribe guards for the phones.   Within the so-called crime ring, “There’s a boss, and, every day for eight hours, there are people doing extortion over the phone. It has hierarchies and it’s very well-established.”  In the past, the extortions were not widely successful because they were conducted in Spanish.  Now, they are in English and the callers are able to effectively impersonate a child or even use a voice-recording.

CNBC, which has led research and reporting on internet kidnapping, attempted to reach out to Mexican authorities, including the former secretary of Government for Mexico City and the Mexican equivalent to the IRS.  They received no response from either.  Additionally, they reached out to the Embassy of Mexico who claimed the issue has not been raised by US authorities.

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