What Is Virtual Kidnapping? California Police Warn Laguna Beach Residents of Threat After Two Recent Incidents

Man on Smartphone
A man talks on his phone at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona on February 27. The practice of virtual kidnapping begins with a phone call. PAU BARRENA/AFP/Getty Images

A phone call comes in from an unknown number, and the person on the other end says a family member has been kidnapped, and that money must be sent to an account located in Mexico, or the loved one will be killed.

While it might sound like something out of a heist movie, two recent instances in California have highlighted an increase in what's known as virtual kidnapping, prompting local police to warn residents of the affluent coastal city of Laguna Beach to be on the alert. Other cases have been reported in the San Clemente area.

According to the Orange County Register, the two cases happened within 48 hours of each other and are believed to be connected.

"[The incidents] are happening in surrounding cities and all appear to be connected to the same group," Laguna Beach Police SergeantJim Cota said. "All of them want money transferred to an account in Mexico and they are directing victims outside of the city to withdraw money. It's like they've been there before. They're sending them all to Costa Mesa."

According to Cota, the first incident occurred on March 7 when the victim received a phone call that his daughter had been kidnapped and would be killed unless he paid $5,000.

"The suspect ordered the victim to stay on the phone with him throughout this incident. The victim became fearful for his daughter and after briefly hearing a female scream into the phone stating she had been kidnapped, the victim went to his bank and withdrew $5,000," Cota said.

Afterward, the victim was told to conduct several wire transfers of the money. The victim got a call from his daughter as he was completing the final transaction. She was safe in Laguna Beach and had not been kidnapped. The victim contacted the police but could not stop the money transfers.

The second virtual kidnapping call occurred a day later, targeting a woman whose daughter attended college in Chicago. The parents were told to send the money to the same account in Mexico.

"Once the mother pulled out the money, she called the police department. Police officers stopped her on her way out of town and were able to stop the transfer of money," Cota said. The mother made contact with her daughter, who was safe in Chicago.

According to a 2017 FBI report, virtual kidnapping has been known among law enforcement for at least two decades. The practice involves a phone call to trick victims into paying ransom for the safe return of a loved one whom they claim was kidnapped. Victims will be kept on the phone to prevent them from discovering the kidnapped individual is safe, and the call a scam, until the ransom has been paid.

According to the report, most of the calls from 2013 to 2015 originated from Mexican prisons and targeted Spanish speakers largely in Los Angeles and Houston.

"In 2015, the calls started coming in English and something else happened: The criminals were no longer targeting specific individuals, such as doctors or Spanish speakers. Now they were choosing various cities and cold-calling hundreds of numbers until innocent people fell for the scheme," said FBI Los Angeles Special Agent Erik Arbuthnot.

Most of the time, victims are instructed to pay small amounts that can be wired, the report said, but in two cases in Houston, the victims were instructed to make money drops for larger monetary amounts.

With the two cases occurring so close together, the Laguna Beach Police Department issued alerts to local schools so they could warn parents.

FBI spokeswoman Laura Einmiller told the Register that weathly areas are frequent targets for these types of schemes.

The FBI recommends the following if you believe you are might be a victim of virtual kidnapping:

• In most cases, the best course of action is to hang up the phone.

• If you do engage the caller, don't call out your loved one's name.

• Try to slow down he situation. Request to speak to your family member directly. Ask "How do I know my loved one is OK?"

• Ask questions that only the supposed kidnap victim would know the answers to, such as the name of a pet. Avoid sharing information about yourself or your family.

• Listen carefully to the voice of the reputed victim if they speak.

• Attempt to contact the victim via phone, text or social media, and request that they call back from their cell phone.

• 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 agree to pay a ransom, by wire or in person. Delivering money in person can be dangerous.

The FBI investigates hundreds of virtual kidnapping cases a year. The cases are prosecuted as violent acts.