‘Virtual Kidnappings’ Hit Entertainment-Industry Elite

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At 12:44 p.m. on June 13, the wife of a high-profile music-industry veteran received a call from number 917, causing her stomach to swell. A male voice with a coarse tone told the woman that her daughter – whose name she used – had just been involved in a car accident and was waiting for help in the back of her vehicle. The man on the line assured the woman that her daughter was fine and she quickly hung up. As the woman was talking to her husband, the phone rang again. This time the voice at the other end was less soothing.

The stranger said he was a member of a Mexican drug cartel and told the woman that plans had changed. He was going to take the girl across the southern border. If the woman doesn’t meet her colleague in a suburban Walmart parking lot and pays $10,000 in cash, the teen will be raped and hacked. Chilling, the man said of the girl’s blond hair and said that she was “very beautiful.” The woman then heard what she thought was her daughter in the background. “Mummy, help me,” cried the muffled voice. The executive made repeated calls to his daughter’s cell phone, but there was no response.

It turned out that the girl was nowhere near the Mexican border. She sat in a class at a private school in New York City, which included several entertainment-industry kids, completing their final exams. His phone was off. The family had become the victim of a scandal that moved from New York to LA. shook the nobles even

One personal-security expert — BlackClock CEO Chris Pearson, whose firm provides digital-security services to celebrities, prominent executives and multiple music labels — has worked with dozens of clients who have been similarly targeted over the past few months. has been done. The scam itself is not new, but the level of sophistication has evolved. He says specific zip codes in Manhattan and Beverly Hills have been particularly hard hit.

“If [the scammers] Target people who have a lot to lose – that is, name, prestige, money – and really, really hone their craft, they are able to make a big profit out of these big fish,” Pearson says. He is a former member of the Department of Homeland Security’s Data Privacy Committee and Cyber ​​Security Subcommittee.

A New York music-industry executive was one such person caught in the crosshairs. “My wife thought it looked like this” [our daughter], But I do not know. She was caught in a moment of panic,” says the executive, who did not want to use his name for fear of being targeted again. “It was 25 minutes of pure terror. You’re living in this horror movie, the worst thing that can happen to you as a parent. It’s the worst possible feeling.”

Before the couple got into their car and headed to the designated Walmart, the executive called on Hermann Weisberg, a private investigator with whom he has worked in the past. Weisberg, a former NYPD officer whose firm SAGE Intelligence provides security for several high-profile entertainment-industry figures, immediately called the school and traced the teen’s whereabouts, and then determined that the scammers were using a burner phone. were using.

Around the time the COVID lockdown ended and schools moved from online to in-person learning, Weisberg began fielding similar stories from his base of nearly 200 clients in New York and LA.

“The man said a cold went down his spine when he was asked not to contact law enforcement,” he says. “And he called me nervously and said, ‘What do I do?’ And I calm them down and find out where their baby is. That’s really the key to it all.”

He notes that high-profile figures are particularly vulnerable because the names of their offspring are often made public. Those kids leave their digital footprints on various social media platforms – sharing valuable details for criminals like upcoming exams. In fact, exam week presented the perfect opportunity for motivated scammers to pounce, given that students are required to turn off their phones for long periods of time.

“It doesn’t take long to figure out where celebrities’ kids go to high school, who they hang out with, where they get Starbucks,” Weisberg says. “I had to go in [to the accounts of] At least one of my clients was very aware of their children’s lives and cleaned up the damage that had already been done. ,

It’s unclear how widespread the problem is, but Pearson believes criminals are gathering intelligence on their targets through data brokerages, legal organizations that collect information for marketers.

“Data-broker information is important because it allows [scammers] to have small pieces of information that will allow them to gain some semblance of credibility with the intended victim – giving them that piece of information [the victim] Thoughts are private but really are not. And that instills confidence in the victims’ minds and in their minds, ‘Holy cow, something is really wrong.’”

The current crop of thugs targeting the one-percent of the entertainment industry is taking a page from the so-called “bling ring,” which operated in Hollywood from 2008 to 2009. In that case, criminals targeted the homes of Paris Hilton and Lindsay. Lohan was informed by her social media postings when she was known to be out on the town.

The NYPD and the FBI are tracking similar scams. The FBI has dubbed the incident a “virtual kidnapping” and warned that “the caller may try to convince a victim that a young woman kidnapped her daughter by screaming for help in the background during the call.” went.” Similarly, the NYPD’s Community Affairs Bureau brought out a bulletin titled “Abduction/Medical Extortion Telephone Scam” and noted that “on a few occasions the scammer claims that a relative of the victim was kidnapped and that until then Will be killed unless the ransom is paid with a wire transfer via Western Union.”

Simon Newton, head of London-based security firm Askari Secure Ltd, says he came to know about the scam, which spread to the UK a few years ago. Although none of her clients, which include Bella Hadid, Kendall Jenner and Rita Ora, have been targeted, she says she has warned them to be vigilant.

“Unfortunately in this day and age, it is very difficult to stop these types of scams,” Newton says. “Especially for high-net-worth and celebrity figures, most of their information is in the public domain. If you want to avoid these situations, a little or no footprint on the internet would be great. But as we know, this is not always possible. It is important to keep your information as secure as possible.”

Along with celebrities and high-profile figures, scammers are able to manipulate publicly available personal details to convince that their loved ones are in grave danger. Sources say Hollywood studios are aware of the threat, which has become a hot topic among their security teams.

Weisberg recently worked with a high-profile actress client who was specifically targeted in gruesome fashion. The perpetrators claimed that his family was in danger and sent pictures of the mutilated victims as a warning of what they might do if he did not pay. Weisberg says he scoured the Internet to see if the images were publicly available. They weren’t, which made them wonder whether the scammers might have a real connection to the cartel in this unusual case.

Ultimately, the trick is a subset of the more mundane phone scam, whose victims number in the millions.

“Not many people have private investigators at Rolodex,” noted the music-industry executive, who never reported his family’s incident to police. “What happens to those who don’t?”

The rest of us have a relatively easy defense, Weisberg replies. Ask for “proof of life”—a picture with a newspaper, say, showing the date—as a way to rule in or rule out the rare possibility of a legitimate kidnapping.

“The danger is almost never real,” he says. “These people can just sit on their phones and watch from afar and find out exactly one’s daily routine. And they are just hoping that one in 100 people take advantage of it.”