The wife of a prominent music business veteran received a distressing call from a 917 number at 12:44 on June 13. Her daughter, whose name he provided, had recently been in a car accident, and she was waiting for help in the back of his car, said a man with a heavy accent to the woman. The man on the other end of the call promptly hung up after assuring the woman that her daughter was alright. The phone rang once more as the woman was telling her husband about the chat. The voice on the other end was far less soothing this time.

The stranger informed the woman that plans had altered and claimed to be a member of a Mexican drug cartel. The girl would be driven across the southern border by him. If the wife didn’t meet him and his associate in a suburban Walmart parking lot and hand over $10,000 in cash, the teen would be raped and mutilated. Uncomfortably, the man gushed about the girl’s blond hair and emphasized how stunning she was. The woman then perceived her daughter’s voice in the distance. The hushed voice begged, “Mommy, please help me.” The businessman tried calling his daughter’s cell phone several times, but no one picked up.

In actuality, the girl was far from the border with Mexico. She was doing her final exams while seated in a classroom at a private school in New York City that was attended by numerous children from the entertainment world. She had turned off her phone. The family had fallen victim to a con that had alarmed the rich and famous from New York to Los Angeles.

Over the past six months, scores of clients who were targeted in a similar way have worked with one private security expert, BlackCloak CEO Chris Pierson, whose company offers digital-protection services to celebrities, notable executives, and many music companies. Although the fraud itself is not new, its sophistication has increased. According to him, several Manhattan and Beverly Hills ZIP codes have been particularly heavily struck.

According to Pierson, a former member of the Department of Homeland Security’s Data Privacy Committee and Cybersecurity Subcommittee, “the scammers” can attempt to take more money from these bigger fish if they target people who have a lot to lose, such as name, reputation, and money, and really, really hone their craft.

One such target was the executive from the New York music industry. I’m not sure, but my wife felt it sounded like “our daughter.” The executive, who declined to give his name out of concern that he would become a target once more, said that she was caught up in the frenzy of the moment. It was utter horror for 25 minutes. The worst thing that could ever occur to you as a parent is happening right now, and you’re living in a horror movie. It’s the worst sensation imaginable.

The executive called Herman Weisberg, a private investigator he had previously dealt with, before the couple got in their car and drove to the designated Walmart. Weisberg, a former NYPD officer whose company SAGE Intelligence offers protection for several prominent members of the entertainment business, called the school right away to find out where the adolescents were. He then realized that the con artists were using a burner phone.

Weisberg started taking calls from his base of 200 clients in New York and L.A. with similar experiences about the same time when Covid lockdowns ceased and schools switched from online to in-person learning.

He claims that when the subject was instructed not to notify law enforcement, a shiver ran down their spine. They then frantically called me and asked, “What do I do?” I also located their missing child while calming them down. The important thing here is basically that.

High-profile individuals, he says, are particularly at risk since the names of their offspring are frequently made known. These kids leave their own digital traces on numerous social media sites by disclosing information that fraudsters find useful, such forthcoming exams. Given that students are compelled to put their phones off for extended periods of time, test week really provided motivated scammers with the ideal opportunity to seize.

According to Weisberg, it doesn’t take long to find out where famous students go high school, who they hang out with, and where they get their Starbucks. At least one of my clients had shared far too much information about their children’s lives, so I had to go into their accounts and undo any harm previously done.

Although it is unknown how prevalent the issue is, Pierson thinks that criminals are using data brokerages—legitimate businesses that collect information for marketers—to learn more about their targets.

Data-broker information is crucial because it enables “scammers” to slowly reveal bits of information to their intended victims, providing them information that “the victim” believes to be private but is actually public. And that makes it possible for the victim to lose trust and think, “Holy cow, something’s really wrong.”

The new generation of con artists preying on the wealthy individuals in the entertainment sector looks to be borrowing strategies from the so-called Bling Ring, which operated in Hollywood from 2008 to 2009. When Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan were known to be out of town, according to information collected from their social media postings, burglars specifically targeted their homes.

Similar scams have been monitored by the FBI and NYPD. The FBI refers to the occurrence as virtual kidnapping and cautions that a caller may try to persuade a victim that his daughter was abducted by having a small girl scream for help in the background of the call. Similar to this, the NYPD’s Community Affairs Bureau released an advisory labeled Kidnapping/Medical Extortion Telephone Scams and highlighted that on occasion the con artist may threaten to kill the victim’s relative unless ransom is paid via a wire transfer through Western Union.

Simon Newton, the CEO of the security company Askari Secure Ltd. in London, claims he first learned about the scam, which has spread to the U.K., a few years ago. He claims he has told his clients, which includes Bella Hadid, Kendall Jenner, and Rita Ora, to be vigilant even though none of them have been specifically targeted.

Newton continues, “Unfortunately, it is very difficult to stop these types of scams from happening in this day and age. Much of the information about high-profile and celebrity figures is available to the public, in particular. You should leave little to no digital trace if you want to stay out of these circumstances. However, this is not always achievable, as we all know. The objective is to secure your data as much as you can.

Scammers can give victims of celebrities and high-profile individuals enough publicly available personal information to persuade them that their loved ones are in dire danger. According to sources, the threat is known to Hollywood studios and has become a heated topic among their security staff.

Weisberg recently assisted a well-known actress client who had been the victim of particularly horrific harassment. The thieves gave her photographs of mutilated victims as a warning of what they might do if she didn’t pay up and said that her family was in danger. Weisberg claims to have searched the internet for the photographs’ availability to the general public. They weren’t, which made him wonder if the con artists in this rare case might indeed have had connections to cartels.

In the end, the scheme is a variation on the more common phone scam, which claims millions of victims.

The music business CEO, who never reported his family’s experience to the police, observes that not many people have private investigators in their contact list. What occurs to those who do not?

Weisberg responds, “The rest of us have a rather straightforward defense.” To rule in or out the uncommon chance of a genuine kidnapping, request proof of life, such as a photo with a newspaper that displays the date.

He claims that the threat hardly ever materializes. These people can just observe someone from a distance while using their phone to determine exactly what they do each day. And they’re only hoping that one out of every 100 people will fall for the trap.

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