It is the phone call every parent of a child abroad is horrified to receive: “Mom, Dad, please help me!” followed by a concealed voice making monetary demands for the safe return of the kidnapped child. In years past, this usually meant that the child had indeed been abducted and was being held for ransom. In recent years, however, many of these calls are placed by “virtual kidnappers” who may be nowhere near the alleged victim. One of the consequences of the “information age” and social media such as Facebook and My Space is the widespread availability of names, addresses and phone numbers. The resourceful virtual kidnapper is someone who collects data on prospective victims who have shared details online about upcoming adventures such as a trip down the Amazon, a hike to Machu Picchu, or an African Safari — all places where cell phone reception is spotty or nonexistent, creating the conditions for scams to go undetected. The calls to the families of the “virtual victims” convey a sense of urgency — that the victim will be executed within the hour unless funds are transferred to a foreign bank account, for instance. Since the family has no way to determine the veracity of the kidnapping, payment is made. Sophisticated virtual kidnappers go to great lengths to “fake out” the families of their victims by pretending to be the victims themselves — speaking in short, frantic sentences that are muffled by “poor cell phone reception.” Because cell phone coverage has grown ever wider– even the remote jungles of sub-Saharan Africa are often reachable today — many virtual kidnappers do not limit their victims to those whose cell phone reception is marginal. Instead, perpetrators contact prospective victims and tell them that their phones should be turned off for an hour or two for servicing. The virtual kidnappers take advantage of the window to make their calls back home. The problem has become so severe in Mexico that the country’s government has set up a hot line for victims of virtual extortion. The U.S. State Department, in its section on travel precautions for Central and South American countries such as Mexico, Venezuela and Peru suggests that families of victims should: 1) not reveal any personal information over the phone, 2) insist on speaking with the victim to corroborate his/her identity and 3) contact the nearest US Embassy or consulate. Although the temptation to respond immediately to demands is

very high, most “virtual kidnappers” will abandon their efforts within an hour or two if payment is not received. Here are a few imperatives to avoid becoming a victim of “virtual kidnapping”: Register with the State Department prior to travel

  • Verify cell phone reception at all proposed locations on the itinerary
  • Do NOT turn off a cell phone at any time- claims that a phone must be disconnected for servicing are universally false
  • Do NOT share any information about an upcoming trip on line
  • Maintain regular contact with family and loved ones back home
  • Establish a code word to be used to verify any kidnapping claims
  • Never
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    travel alone, particularly in Latin America, Africa and the mid East where both real and virtual kidnappings are epidemic


About The Author

Frank Gillingham, M.D. serves as Chief Medical Director for HTH Worldwide. Frank has led HTH Worldwide's international business development efforts in Europe and Canada and has been a guest speaker at international business conferences and has authored a series of articles on travel medicine, including pieces on travel information available on the Internet and the role of physicians working with travel insurers. Frank is a Board-Certified Internist and Emergency Medicine Specialist. He is also a private emergency physician in Southern California and a former emergency department director and member of the UCLA emergency department staff. Frank completed residency training at Los Angeles County/USC Medical Center, received his M.D. from Albert Einstein College of Medicine and his B.A. from the University of Pennsylvania .

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