Monday, August 4, 2014

Texas: "Virtual Kidnappings" Targeting Medical Profession in El Paso, TX Border Towns

According to and The El Paso Times, a terrifying telephone scam known as a "virtual kidnapping" is targeting physicians in El Paso and other Texas border cities.

An El Paso Police Department spokesman on Friday (August 1) confirmed that police are aware of the extortion scam and a warning has been circulating amongst the medical community about the threatening phone calls, which purportedly originates with a drug cartel.

"Virtual kidnapping"s sprung up in México a good number of years ago, feeding off fears of drug violence and abductions. It is called a "virtual kidnapping" because the victim is made to believe a loved one has been abducted when no kidnapping has actually occurred. 

In the latest version, a person calls a doctor's office and asks for a doctor by name. The caller claims to be from a drug cartel and that the cartel has kidnapped the doctor's son or daughter. There is often a crying child in the background. The caller barks instructions, demands a ransom amount and the victim is ordered to wire the money to México. 

COMMENT: My suggestion is that if you have a friend in law enforcement, ask them to look over your Facebook page or other social media sites to ensure that you're not providing too much personal information that could be used for a "virtual kidnapping."

For instance, I strongly discourage any social media site users from putting their phone numbers, dates of birth, home addresses or other unique personal information on social media sites.

In keeping with the tactic, the victim does not realize that no one has actually been abducted, but all callers urge the recipient to take instructions on payment.

I strongly urge all residents, no matter where they live, that these scams and variations of them continue to used by criminals.

One of the best strategies in preventing a "virtual kidnapping" is to do the following:

a. Have a trusted expert examine your social media sites to assess whether your intentionally making yourself vulnerable;

b. Have a personal mobile phone;

c. Have all of your close friends and family in your phone;

d. Stay in close touch at least weekly with those close to you;

e. If you receive a telephone scam, and before you do anything, call the person who you've been told has been abducted to see if they're alright; and

f. If you can't reach them, contact law enforcement immediately.

Last month in South Texas, KRGV reported that a physician in McAllen received a call claiming that his daughter had been kidnapped by the Zetas cartel. The caller demanded $50,000 or they would deliver his daughter's head in a bag. Then, a girl crying and begging for her life was put on the phone. The doctor said that the call seemed frighteningly real for about 30 seconds before he became suspicious.

No ransom was paid. The doctor's daughter was safe and had never been abducted.

In April, the FBI website warned about "virtual kidnappings" targeting US citizens staying in hotels in México.

"Callers impersonate themselves as cartel members or corrupt police officers who claim they've kidnapped a loved one and demand a ransom," according to an FBI podcast. The victim is told to follow instructions in a scam that can run for three days. The FBI said that many scammers are suspected to be Mexican inmates using smuggled mobile phones.

The FBI said the calls have warning signs: calls come from an outside area code; the ransom is only accepted by wire transfer; and the calls never come from the victim's phone.

In some scams, a caller tricks a victim into believing they are a relative in México. They usually start a call saying "Guess who it is?" They then claim to be the person that the victim guessed. The caller usually says they are coming to visit, but then call to say they have been in an accident or arrested in México and ask for money to be wired to save them from their plight.

State police warn that extortionists are looking at social media profiles to get home and cellphone numbers as well as names of relatives, children, photos, schools, workplaces and places frequented by victims. The information is then used as details in making threats and demands for payment.

Anyone who has been a victim of a telephone scam should contact local law enforcement FIRST.