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Virtual kidnappers depend on speed, fear

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

It’s a nightmare scenario in which you are called by someone from Mexico, only to be told that a relative has been kidnapped and that you must pay a ransom – and fast.

Called “virtual kidnapping,” this kind of crime has been occurring throughout New Mexico recently, the FBI and several local police departments have warned.

It’s similar to the “grandparent scam” in which a supposed grandchild needs money to be bailed out of prison, and you need to send money right away. This is also a bogus scenario, and if you fall for it, you’re out the bucks.

Virtual kidnapping scams, though, aren’t limited to grandchildren and grandparents. The ones reported in the state mostly originate in Mexico, and the caller uses “deceptions and threats” to “coerce victims to pay a quick ransom before the scheme falls apart,” the FBI says.

Here’s what to do, courtesy of the FBI:

• If you suspect you’ve just been hit by one of these, call the Albuquerque FBI Division at 505-889-1300 or local police. You can also send anonymous tips to the FBI at

• Try contacting the supposed victim by phone, text or social media and ask your loved one to call you back, using a cell phone.

• If you do speak to the caller, do not disclose your relative’s name or give out any other identifying information.

• Ask to speak to your family member. If the caller balks, say, “How do I know my loved one is alive?”

• Ask questions only the supposed kidnapped person would know, such as the name of a pet.

• If you do engage, try to slow the process. “The success of any type of virtual kidnapping scheme depends on speed and fear,” the FBI says. To buy time, repeat the caller’s request and say that you are writing down the information. Or, simply, say you need more time before you respond.

Coronavirus scams are surging, with the Federal Trade Commission receiving 7,800 complaints since the beginning of the year. That’s double the week before, the FTC said last week.

The most common are online shopping, mobile texting and travel- and vacation-related scams involving cancellations and refunds. The median loss among those who reported was $598, the FTC said.

Here’s a tricky one involving food delivery, which so many more people are relying on now that restaurants have stopped dine-in service.

In this one, after you place your order, you get a text message saying the food can’t be delivered until you confirm your address, according to Scam Detector. You click on the link, which says your order is on the way, but you have not paid the $3 shipping cost. So you click again, this time on a link that says, “Pay Shipping Cost.”

This takes you to a page where you fill in your credit card information, which goes directly to the scammers.

The obvious question is how do they know you have just made a food order and that you’d be a good target? The answer is, they don’t. “They send hundreds of thousands of text messages at once, hoping to catch some fish in their net, especially during this COVID-19 pandemic,” Scam Detector says.

The best protection is to ask the restaurant, when you place your order, if everything is included in the payment you make.

Contact Ellen Marks at or 505-823-3842 if you are aware of what sounds like a scam. To report a scam to law enforcement, contact the New Mexico Consumer Protection Division toll-free at 1-844-255-9210.


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