Imagine yourself in this situation. You answer the phone and hear a child cry out, “Help me, help me, do whatever they want!” A man tells you he is about to cut off your child’s hand, and maybe even kill them, if a ransom is not paid. Panicking, the next thing you hear is the man ask, “Here’s the deal, your child’s life is going to cost you.”

What Is “Virtual Kidnapping”?

This is every parent’s worse nightmare. If, in the end, it turns out to be a scam, is it any less of a nightmare?

That was the question put before a Houston judge in a criminal case in which Yanette Rodrigues Acosta was accused of helping Mexican prisoner, Ismael Ramirez, commit “virtual kidnapping,” a scam which is taking the country by storm. In this crime, a caller extorts victims by coaxing them into paying a ransom, ranging from $2,000 to $20,000, to free a loved one they believe has been kidnapped or is being threatened with violence or death. In reality, the caller hasn’t kidnapped anyone, but tries to keep victims on the phone so that they cannot check to see if their targeted relative is safe or not.

Is This a Crime?

This scam is so new that there is no crime in most states for virtual kidnapping. So what can the charges be? And what’s the penalty?

In the Houston case, Acosta’s part in the crime was going to designated drop-off points and collecting the money ($13,000 and $15,000) from two separate victims. She then wired the money, and also recruited a friend to wire money, to Ramirez in Mexico. She did not make the actual phone calls; those were made by Ramirez. The federal grand jury charged Acosta with eight counts of wire fraud, conspiracy to commit wire fraud, and conspiracy to commit money laundering. For these crimes, Acosta was sentenced to 88 months in prison, three years probation, and a $7,000 fine. As for Ramirez, he is “safe” in a Mexican prison, since at this time, it would be too difficult to extradite and prosecute him in a U.S. courtroom.

Please educate yourself on this scam. For more information, including how to avoid being a victim of this crime, and to report phone calls like this, see the F.B.I.’s tips on its website.

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