Virtual Kidnappers Are Pretending to Steal Children to Demand Ransom From Moms

With the advent of a new form of virtual crime threatening American families, we spoke with a former NYPD officer and professor of criminal justice to understand what the hell is happening.

Apr 25 2016, 5:55pm

Kevin Gilgan via Stocksy

Imagine receiving an anonymous phone call and answering it only to hear the apparent sound of your child's screams punctuated by an angry, unfamiliar voice giving instructions on how to ensure your kid will not be killed. It's simple: you're being surveilled, the abductor says, so speak to no one and wire money to him immediately. With brunch, or yoga, or work, interrupted you race against time to get these people the money they've demanded. But while you panic, your child is fine. They've not been kidnapped; the ransom is a scam and you're it's latest fool.

Such has been the fate of an increasing number of people in the United States, and it could happen to you too. According to The Guardian, this horror befell mother Tracy Holzer in March of this year. For two hours she followed the instructions of her kid's supposed nappers, before realizing she'd been tricked. Holzer, The Guardian reported, is victim to a growing type of crime; There have been more than fifty reported incidences of virtual kidnapping in Southern California since the summer of 2015.

Like all cyber crimes, virtual kidnapping presents its own, unique challenges for law enforcement professionals. Joseph Giacalone is a former officer of the NYPD and a professor at John Jay College in the department of Law & Police Science and Criminal Justice Administration. "Unlike most other countries, kidnapping for ransom is not as prevalent in the United States," Giacalone tells Broadly.

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Such crimes are not common here, he says, because of the strict laws we have against them; In the US you can be sentenced to life in prison for kidnapping someone and there was a time you could be sentenced to death, if the person you kidnapped was harmed. But while real kidnapping for ransom is not common here, Giacalone told me that these virtual crimes are. "They catch somebody at an emotional time," he says explaining that virtual kidnapping is just one form of these scams. "They've even impersonated the police and said, 'you're grandson has been arrested, you need to send money or he'll be sent over to the local county jail," Giacalone says. Another popular one, according Giacalone, is the "IRS scam," in which the caller pretends to be the IRS, claims you've been audited and owe $3,000 and if you don't pay you'll be locked up in prison tomorrow.

Unfortunately these crimes are all too often successful. "We're dealing with people that aren't dumb," Giacalone says of the scammers who are often based outside of the US, according to The Gaurdian. "They're extremely technologically savvy." People often take the calls seriously because they don't know any better and it is emotional, Giacalone says. "Talk about pulling on somebody's emotional heartstrings—people tend not to think as much when they're in a panic."

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Giacalone warns that virtual scammers know how to pick their target. Indeed, there was a spate of virtual kidnapping crimes in Beverly Hills in 2015. "They target certain zip codes," he emphasizes, explaining how easy it is with the internet to find out property value and the income of a home's inhabitants. "They're not going to pick inner-city neighborhoods, per sé, to do this because [people living in such areas] don't have as much money and are less likely to be forthcoming with it."

Giacalone says that virtual kidnappers might target mothers, such as Holzer, specifically—the scammers may believe that mothers may be more susceptible to threats of their children's safety. "They target a mom that's at home," he adds, "mom's are going to go into panic mode—not to say that fathers won't go into panic mode. Together they might have a chance to put this thing together before overreacting emotionally." The scammers, he says, are counting on an emotional reaction.

Giacalone believes that people need to know how to react if they receive a phone call like this. First of all, he says, don't panic. "I don't know what teenager is not plugged into their cellphones or social media," Giacalone explains that people can either call, send a Facebook message to, or tweet at their loved one to see if they're okay or if they're being kidnapped at the moment. But you can also do a little interrogating yourself while the virtual kidnapper is on the line. "Engage the person in conversation," Giacalone advises. "'What does my niece look like?' So, the person has to identify certain questions, almost like an interview, in order to develop if this is a scam or not. Because a scammer isn't going to know that information."

Engage the 'kidnapper' in conversation. Ask: 'What does my niece look like?'

"They can't wire the money from their house. They have to go somewhere else. So in that timeframe they can do things like make a phone call, check on Twitter or Facebook. If your grandson or whatever just checked in at the Starbucks on the corner then you know that he or she is okay."

Giacalone believes that these crimes can be reduced if people stop buying into them, but he also believes they can be prevented by the dissemination of information to the public. "This is a typical incidence where public awareness will help to mitigate these problems in the future," he says, adding that the internet has birthed a new breed of crime itself and that one reason police departments need to focus on community awareness is that more and more new virtual crimes are bound to crop up.

"The banks are just paying out the money because they want people to continue using their accounts and credit cards," Giacalone says. For the police, it's wickedly difficult. The perpetrators of virtual crime put up too many layers of protection, making it harder and harder for police to investigate these crimes and for them to be successfully prosecuted. "It's become such an issue where the identity thieves have proven that if you've gotten the right thing going, law enforcement is pretty much hopeless."

And that's all on top of a disadvantage that police face when it comes to technology. "Police departments don't like change," Giacalone explains. Because it is so expensive to implement new technology, they rarely do. And if a new technology is instituted in a police department, it quickly becomes outdated with the advent of yet another new form of technology that surpasses it. "You've got police departments still running Windows '95."

Ultimately it seems as if protecting yourself from virtual kidnapping is about being informed and acting rationally. "Like P.T. Barnum said," Giacalone concludes, "There's a sucker born every minute—and these guys are counting on it."