By Sebastien Malo
NEW YORK (Reuters) - In a new wrinkle to an old crime, hundreds of New Yorkers have been tricked into paying ransoms by wire transfer to callers who falsely claim to have kidnapped their family members, according to the FBI.
In these "virtual kidnappings," scammers make random calls to find their victims, saying a loved one has been snatched and demanding the immediate transfer of small sums of money to have them released, the FBI said.
Some calls feature screaming in the background to convince a victim of the authenticity of an abduction, the FBI said.
"There have been hundreds of the hoax kidnappings just in New York over the last 18 months," FBI spokesman Peter Donald said on Wednesday. "This is hundreds of people who have actually wired money to them."
The scammers appear to be Hispanic males, the FBI said, and victims have been instructed to send ransoms, which have reached up to $1,900, to Puerto Rico.
The New York City victims are also Hispanic, and some "may not be here legally and might not be comfortable reaching out to law enforcement," Donald said.
“This is a scheme that takes advantage of some of the most vulnerable people in New York City,” George Venizelos, assistant director in charge of the FBI's New York field office, said in a statement released on Tuesday.
Perpetrators have resorted to an array of fictitious scenarios to coerce victims, many of whom were told the loved one was being held to settle a narcotics debt or to recover compensation for smuggling illegal immigrants or car accidents, the FBI said.
The scheme has been around for years, according to the FBI, but its growing popularity has pushed the agency to raise awareness.
Virtual kidnapping is most common in Latin America, according to a report from Control Risks, a strategic consultancy.
(Editing by Frank McGurty and Will Dunham)