Article November 27, 2017

Virtual kidnappings in Latin America

There has been a notable increase in scams involving hoax kidnappings in recent years. Virtual kidnapping involves attempts to extort a ransom from individuals by perpetrators falsely claiming they have abducted a loved one. S-RM Latin America analyst Rufus Kleinwort highlights some recent cases below, illustrating how this type of scam may target locals and foreign nationals alike, include other forms of fraud, and involve different levels of sophistication depending on the perpetrator.

Mexico is widely identified as a hub for virtual kidnappings, with several foreign ministries warning citizens of the risk of this form of fake kidnapping while travelling in the country. Organised gangs and opportunistic criminals alike continue to rely on the low investment required to carry out the crime. Small-time criminal groups have taken advantage of tourists and students – who are frequently uncontactable for several hours – to convince their families that their loved one has been kidnapped. Callers simply need the name of the traveller or student and their emergency contact in order to exact small ransoms from panicked relatives. Yet, as members of the public have become more aware of this type of scam, criminals have devised more convincing schemes. For example, Mexico’s Secretariat of the Interior released a warning this summer highlighting the vulnerability of individuals staying in hotels to scams that convince them they are under surveillance by an infamous Mexican gang, such as Los Zetas. Fearful of being assaulted or even killed, individuals comply with instructions and unwittingly isolate themselves, whereupon the scam artists contact the victim’s relatives to extort a wired-transfer of money.

Virtual kidnapping has increasingly become a global phenomenon. In Latin America, there is a range of perpetrators, targets and modus operandi. In Rosario, Argentina, an elderly woman was robbed of her life savings (more than USD 22,800), believing that supposed captors were harming her son. She made various trips to a designated street corner close to her house, handing over bags of cash and jewellery to an intermediary. Several similar incidents suggest that groups in Argentina target older citizens since they are less aware of the scheme.

In another case, local news sources reported in July 2017 that an Argentine group named the ‘Hermanos Gitanos’ – comprising four men and four women between the ages of 30 and 60 – had been arrested for an estimated 28 successful virtual kidnappings. The head of the group had conducted all her activities whilst under house arrest, calling targets either late at night or early in the morning to increase victims’ sense of panic.

Although many locals in Latin America have an increased awareness of this scam, the elderly, students and tourists, remain vulnerable. The Argentine Instituto Nacional de Estadística y Censos revealed recently that around four in every 100 virtual kidnappings in the country resulted in the payment of a ransom. Unfortunately, continued fear of kidnaps for ransom, and inefficient policing in the region, suggest that this type of scam will continue to be carried out by Latin American criminal groups.