The Houston FBI is warning the public about a rise in "virtual kidnapping" fraud schemes and the recent targeting of Houstonians in these schemes.
Recently the ruse has targeted one group in particular, Houston area doctors.
A Houston pediatrician told Local 2 that a few weeks ago he was targeted at his office with a frantic phone call.
"It was a female that starts screaming 'Daddy, Daddy, please help me. Please come and get me," he said.
The doctor, who asked to remain anonymous, was wise to the scam because he had heard of it before and he knew his daughters had not been kidnapped, he said.
But the FBI reports that others in and around Houston have fallen victim, agreeing to wire or deliver money.
Over the past several years, the FBI and law enforcement agencies around the country, and particularly along the border, have received reports from the public regarding these extortion or fraud schemes.
The schemes typically involve an individual or criminal organization who contacts a victim via telephone and demands payment for the return of a "kidnapped" family member or friend. However, no actual kidnapping has taken place. It's all a fraud scheme designed to scare victims into wiring them money.
The callers often use co-conspirators to convince their victims of the legitimacy of the threat. For example, a caller might attempt to convince a victim that his daughter was kidnapped by having a young female scream for help in the background during the call.
Callers, sometimes representing themselves as members of a drug cartel or corrupt law enforcement, will typically provide the victim with specific instructions to ensure the safe "return" of the allegedly kidnapped individual. These instructions usually involve demands of a ransom payment.
Most schemes use various techniques to instill a sense of fear, panic and urgency in an effort to rush the victim into making a very hasty decision. Instructions usually require the ransom payment be made immediately and typically by a wire transfer.
These schemes involve varying amounts of ransom demands, which often decrease at the first indication of resistance.
Callers will often go to great lengths to engage victims in ongoing conversations to prevent them from verifying the status and location of the “kidnapped” individuals. Callers will often make their victims believe they are being watched and were personally targeted. In reality, many of these calls are originating outside of the United States. The fraudsters are simply making hundreds of calls, possibly using phone directories or other phone lists, knowing at least some of those targeted will fall for the scam.
"That's the thing, they're making it very real. They're praying off of fear. They're using tactics and sometimes co- conspirators to think that it's very real," FBI Special Agent Shauna Dunlap said.
While the reported number of virtual kidnapping schemes appears to be increasing, a recent trend indicates perpetrators of these schemes may be targeting physicians to include dentists, general practitioners and various specialists in Houston and across Texas.
During the past few weeks, the FBI has fielded calls from victim physicians located in the Houston area. In June and July, the FBI received multiple reports indicating physicians in McAllen, Laredo, Brownsville, and Del Rio, Texas, were targeted in similar virtual kidnapping schemes.
Due to the rising prevalence of these types of incidents, coupled with the increased victimization of members of the medical community in the Houston area and across Texas, the FBI is attempting to raise awareness within the health care industry and the public at large.
To avoid becoming a victim of this extortion scheme, look for the following possible indicators:
- Incoming calls made from an outside area code
- 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 questions only the victim would know
- Request the kidnapped victim call back from his/her cell phone
If you have any question about whether the call is a scheme or a legitimate kidnapping, contact your nearest FBI office immediately. Tips can also be submitted online. All tipsters may remain anonymous.