Virtual Kidnapping a Real Crime

               International travel is an adventure where you can experience new foods, see new locations and sites and enjoy different cultures.  Most of us are fine with the adventure ending there and do not want to become a victim of criminals taking advantage of travelers.  Unfortunately, that happens to thousands every year.
               As technology changes so do the types of crimes faced by us all, whether traveling or not.  One example that has been rampant in Mexico and South America has been the virtual kidnapping.  According to one news story from CBS, there were 44,000 attempts at virtual kidnapping in a few months. 
               So what is virtual kidnapping?  There are different methods and ways to carry out this crime.  The most basic is that a traveler has their cell phone stolen or pick pocketed and the suspect uses it to call home or other contacts from the address book.  The caller will announce that the owner of the cell phone has been kidnapped and that money must be immediately sent via Western Union to release the victim.  Many relatives will immediately wire the money out of fear for their loved one.  Often, the victim’s employer, in the case of business travelers, will send the money to avoid any risk to the employee or the company’s reputation.
               Of course, as potential victims become more aware of scams like this, the likelihood of the ‘kidnappers’ being successful drops to a rate comparable to the number of people who actually think that they won the Nigerian lottery and only need to wire money to get their check.  So the tactics adapt and improve.
               Potential virtual kidnappers now need to plan their fake abductions a little more carefully to become more believable.  In one case, a mother received a call from a woman crying for help.  The voice sounded like her daughter and was very convincing amidst the demands for money by a male voice – until the daughter begged her father to help.  The mother realized the call was a fake as the father had been dead for several years.
               Often, we make ourselves great potential victims before we even get on the flight to take us to our international destination.  Facebook and other social sites have become a great way to share information with friends about upcoming travel, but, unfortunately, are also a very useful intelligence tool for someone with Internet access half a world away to learn of our travels as well.  Even Linked In has a travel feature that lets contacts know where we will be and when.  Even if you assume that only your contacts can see your plan, do you really believe that all 500 of your Facebook friends are really people you know well?
               There are also the travel chat rooms visible to anyone who may be able to get your name and address or hometown in short order with a Google search.  A potential virtual kidnapper can time a call to family when you are traveling in a remote area without cell phone access.  In that case, they don’t even have to use your cell phone for their threats.
               Of course, even if you don’t post your plans, some of your friends may on their social networking posts.  So unless you plan on keeping your travel plans top secret from even friends and relatives you may need to take some other precautions.
               One is to arrange to have code words or phrases with family in case you are kidnapped abroad.  One security source recommends having two code words, one to let your family know that you are okay and the other to let them know you are not and that you are in a dangerous situation.  Make sure that your family asks for “proof of life” if you are kidnapped.  A “legitimate” kidnapper will expect that before they will get any ransom paid and will be prepared to let the victim talk directly to family on the phone.  If not, then no ransom should be paid – the victim may already be dead or may not even have been kidnapped.
               This type of crime may not sound serious, but imagine being in that position.  Knowing that your son, daughter, or spouse was traveling in a risky country and then you get a phone call demanding a ransom and the caller seems to be knowledgeable about them, won’t you feel scared and tempted to pay anything to get your family freed?  That is a natural reaction and that is what makes this crime so much more frightening than other types of frauds or scams – your loved one may be in danger and you will be worried until you hear from them and hear that they are okay.
               International travel can involve so many different types of risks that it is always a good idea to check with the U.S. State Department for specific crime information and travel advisories to your destination before your trip.  A quick review of potential problems and pre-planning can make all the difference between having a fun travel adventure or a terrifying and dangerous experience.

No comments:

Post a Comment