Virtual Kidnapping

Update: In April 2016, the Mexican government left the online front door open, exposing the voter data of 87 million voters. The glitch was quickly discovered and fixed by the good guys. But for the bad ones, it must have felt like Christmas and Cinqo de Mayo and Dia de Muertos all rolled up in the same day. With millions of names, current addresses, dates of birth and voter ID numbers vulnerable, the data leak is virtual kidnapping candy.

It starts with a phone call.

‘Do you know where your daughter is?’

‘Jenny?’ you ask, worried, hoping it’s a wrong number.

You hear a scream in the background. Parental instinct kicks in.

‘Jenny!’

The kidnapper stays on the phone as you arrange for the wire transfer. You try to connect to your daughter through social media, to no avail. The abductor promises to release your daughter within 24 hours, once the money goes through. The whole thing is over in less than sixty minutes.

It isn’t until the next day, when Jenny calls to tell you all about yesterday’s camping trip, that you realise you’ve been a victim of virtual kidnapping.

Virtual kidnapping began at a dusty bus stop in the Middle of Nowhere, Mexico. Locals would get the name and phone number off a solo traveller’s luggage tag and get to work. By the next stop, the virtual abductors were a little richer, with the gringo none the wiser.

Today, virtual kidnappers use tech to manipulate frantic loved ones. Banks of phones line virtual kidnapping call centres, where armies of operators pepper border towns with cold calls. Why does it work? Do you know how many people are named Juan Lopez?

Here are some clues that the kidnappers are scammers, not abductors:

  • They keep you on the phone. This is so you don’t try to call the victim. Real kidnappers keep it short and sweet, and limit contact. Virtual kidnappers call back repeatedly.
  • Phone calls don’t come from the victim’s phone and the number isn’t local.
  • The kidnappers rush you, and demand the ransom via wire transfer rather than a physical drop.

If you suspect the caller is scamming you, call the cops. Even if you’re pretty sure the kidnapping is a scam, nothing’s certain until you contact the victim.

  • Press for more details. Ask what the victim is wearing. The name of her first pet.
  • Don’t divulge any information about the alleged victim. Be vigilant! These people are slicker than Tarot readers in a tourist trap.
  • Keep calm. Talk slowly. Try to buy some time so that you can locate the victim, or the police can locate the con artists.
  • Try to contact the victim via social media. Ask that the victim call back on his or her mobile as proof of identity.

How do you prevent a virtual kidnapping? Easy: get rid of your smart phone, shut down all your social media accounts and never travel again.

For those of us who prefer to dwell on the topsides of rocks, tightening security and reducing one’s online footprint is a big step. Armed with a name and a few details from social media, virtual kidnappers succeed because they operate on speed and surprise. Knowing that virtual kidnapping exists is half the battle.

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