The FBI and our law enforcement partners are warning the public about a new, concerning twist on virtual kidnapping for ransom scams (VKFR), where criminals are convincing U.S. victims to cross the border into Mexico.

Law enforcement agencies have been warning the public of virtual kidnapping schemes for some time. Virtual kidnappings happen when a victim is told, over the phone, that his or her family member has been kidnapped. Then, through deception and threats, criminals coerce victims to pay a ransom. The criminals also threaten harm to the party(s) if they call law enforcement or alert authorities. No one is physically kidnapped in these schemes, but they are often traumatic for everyone involved. On average, the family sends thousands of dollars to the scammers before contacting law enforcement.

In this new twist, extortionists are calling rooms at U.S. hotels near the border and telling guests that the hotel is surrounded by armed enforcers. The criminals convince the guests to leave their hotel and drive across the border to a Mexico-based hotel. The extortionist then convinces the victim to video-call them and take a screenshot. The criminals will then send the photo to the victim’s family, convince them that their loved-one is kidnapped, and coerce them to pay a ransom.

It’s important to note that the victims are crossing into Mexico on their own, but are doing so under the fear of death. Victims report that the threats feel frighteningly real. In one instance, a victim was convinced to stay in a hotel room for multiple nights. In another instance, the victim’s co-workers armed themselves inside a hotel room thinking there were armed criminals outside, who were after them. In both cases, which were investigated by the Nogales Police Department, the victims were safely recovered by authorities after they were alerted.

Between 2013 and 2015, investigators were tracking virtual kidnapping calls from Mexico—almost all of these schemes originated from within Mexican prisons. In this latest twist, the criminals may believe that they have more control over the victims once they lure them across the border into Mexico, thinking it could be easier for them to further extort the victims or their families.

The FBI believes most virtual kidnappings for ransom remain unreported. We hope to raise awareness about this most recent scheme and equip individuals with the knowledge they need to avoid becoming a victim of this crime.

If you get this type of call, whether you think it’s an extortion scheme or a legitimate kidnapping, contact law enforcement immediately.

To avoid becoming a victim, look for these possible indicators:

  • Multiple successive phone calls
  • Calls do not come from the kidnapped victim’s phone
  • Callers go to great lengths to keep you on the phone
  • Callers prevent you from calling or locating the “kidnapped” victim
  • Ransom money is only accepted via wire transfer service

If you receive a phone call from someone who demands payment of a ransom for a kidnapped victim, the following should be considered:

  • Stay calm
  • Slow the situation down
  • Avoid sharing information about you or your family during the call
  • Listen carefully to the voice of the kidnapped victim
  • Attempt to call or determine the location of the “kidnapped” victim
  • Request to speak to the victim; ask for “proof of life”
  • Ask questions only the victim would know
  • Request the kidnapped victim call back from his/her cell phone
  • Try to use another means of contacting the family member that has allegedly been kidnapped
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