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"Virtual" kidnapping....what does that mean?

Many of us have probably heard of virtual kidnapping, but how many people can really describe the risk?  Recent articles in the Washington Post and Santa Barbara Independent tell the stories of two different families’ experiences dealing with this threat and are worth a read. Both here in the US and internationally this tactic is growing and awareness is the key to mitigating the risk.

Specific virtual kidnap tactics vary, but as the articles make clear most attempts rely on isolating a person to make them believe a family member or someone else close to them has been abducted. Many times the caller making the ransom demand will tell the person to stay on the phone through the course of the “kidnap” to limit the person’s ability to reach the loved one and confirm their status. Only after the “ransom” is paid and the caller hangs up, does the person discover that the supposed target of the abduction was never being held.

While no victim is actually abducted during a virtual kidnap, “ransoms” are paid by distraught family members or others, typically through wire transfer. Dollar figures demanded in many cases are relatively low — especially when compared to traditional kidnap — and are arguably a clue that no one has actually been kidnapped.

How do you mitigate this risk? Awareness of the threat — and that it’s really an extortion scam — is critical.  In addition to describing various tactics used by criminals in these case, this press release from the FBI offers practical guidance for responding to these threats.

Organizations should understand their exposure to this risk and prepare accordingly. Given the various tactics used by virtual kidnappers globally, it’s important for organizations to seek guidance from the response consultants imbedded in kidnap, ransom and extortion insurance coverage to understand specific risk in the areas they work and travel.   Educating staff and travelers on the issue and response is essential — and especially important for travelers to Latin America where this risk is prevalent.

Risk awareness is always important — and probably more so when it comes to virtually kidnapping where knowledge of these scams may significantly reduce exposure.