FBI: 'virtual kidnapping' scam now targeting local doctors

SAN ANTONIO – The San Antonio office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation said Thursday that "virtual kidnappings" are on the rise with criminals shifting their focus to doctors in San Antonio and the surrounding areas.

"The hopes are that instead of investing time and trying to figure out whether or not it's a legitimate kidnapping, they might be willing just to pay to resolve the problem," said special agent Michelle Lee.

Lee said in the last few months the number of calls has doubled in the region from people who have received these calls, some of whom sent money via wire transfers.  

"We're confident that there are a lot of other victims out there that may be a little embarrassed about what happened and are probably not contacting us," she said.

For dramatic effect, Lee said the callers often work with accomplices to increase the fear of the potential victims.

"They may have a woman in the background screaming and yelling for help or perhaps the sound of people being tortured," she said. "Anything that we could see in a haunted house that would sound awful are things they are using to try to scare their victims and terrorize them."

Even people who know they're being scammed still feel as someone's life might be in danger. One man received a call saying his daughter was kidnapped even though he didn't have one.

"Even though he didn't have a daughter, he was still afraid to hang up the phone," said Lee. "That is how much these individuals terrorize their victims when they are talking to them."

The FBI has reached out to local medical groups to inform all doctors in their regional service area about the scams. Lee said in the last year the local office investigated one kidnapping where a suspect was caught and prosecuted. Many of these calls are difficult to trace and are often placed from outside the United States. Lee said investigations are getting better as more people come forward.  

To avoid falling victim, Lee suggests looking for the following possible indicators:

  • Incoming calls made from an outside area code
  • Multiple successive phone calls
  • Calls do not come from the kidnapped victim's phone
  • Callers go to great lengths to keep you on the phone
  • Callers prevent you from calling or locating the "kidnapped" victim
  • Ransom money is only accepted via wire transfer service

If you do receive a call from a possible kidnapper, the FBI says to consider the following to help determine whether it's legitimate.

  • Stay calm 
  • Slow the situation down
  • Avoid sharing information about you or your family during the call
  • Listen carefully to the voice of the kidnapped victim 
  • Attempt to call or determine the location of the "kidnapped" victim 
  • Request to speak to the victim 
  • Ask questions only the victim would know
  • Request the kidnapped victim call back from his/her cell phone

Anyone with questions about a possible kidnapping or extortion phone call can reach the local FBI office at 210-225-6741. Tips can also be sent anonymously at tips.fbi.gov.