The kidnappers appear to be able to find out who is traveling to Mexico and/or is coming into the US illegally. They then call a family member or loved one, claiming they have the tourist or illegal immigrant hostage and demanding money for a safe return.
I happened to pick up this story on Fox News, which reported that Immigration and Customs in Phoenix gets a report about once a week of smugglers holding a hostage. Although 75 percent of them are real, about 25 percent are bogus, according to the story.
The reason the virtual scam works is probably that real cases of people being kidnapped are becoming commonplace south of the border. In April, CBS News reported that a hotline set up in Mexico City to deal with extortion cases had received 44,000 calls since December. The hotline statistics recorded were 22,851 extortion attempts avoided, 3,415 telephone numbers identified as being tied to extortionists, and 1,627 people who paid off the virtual kidnappers.
In another version of virtual kidnapping, an illegal immigrant already in the country is contacted and told that a family member is being held hostage in Mexico. It's not unknown for smugglers to hold onto a family member and extort money from illegal immigrants whom they have brought across the border. With all the real kidnapping going on, it makes sense that fake ones seem legitimate.
Network World asked why this type of kidnapping is referred to as virtual. Paul McNamara wrote a interesting piece pointing out that the term "virtual" doesn't really fit in these cases. "The crime itself is horrific — beyond comprehension in its cruelty — so there's some hesitancy to complain about semantics. But this is a technology column and the underlying issue — society's tendency to blame modern-day bad deeds on technology instead of the bad-deed doers — is an important one," according to McNamara.
He makes a very good point: scams designed to part people from their hard-earned money didn't start with the computer age. Confidence tricks have been around for a long time and virtual kidnapping is merely that, a confidence trick. A good example is what is known as the Spanish Prisoner letter, where someone was tricked into thinking they were securing the release of a wealthy individual (who couldn't reveal their own identity) from prison in return for future compensation. This particular scam dates back to well over 100 years ago.
The Internet is full of too-good-to-be-true scams, which use greed to lure victims. Besides greed, fear is another lure scammers use. We see this on the Internet in threatening letters allegedly from government agencies, or even in what is known as the hit-man scam. In the hit-man scam, a person is intimidated into paying someone off to remove a contract that has supposedly been taken out on their life.
Scams using the telephone are becoming more and more common as well, dubbed "vishing." Here the telephone is used to perform confidence tricks of all sorts, and/or to steal personal and financial information later used in identity theft schemes.