At 12:44 p.m. on June 13, the wife of a high-profile music-industry veteran received a call from a 917 number that made her stomach drop. A male voice with a thick accent told the woman that her daughter — whose name he used — had just been involved in a car accident and was in the back of his vehicle awaiting help. The man on the line assured the woman that her daughter was fine and hung up quickly. As the woman was relaying the conversation to her husband, the phone rang again. This time the voice on the other end was far less comforting.
The stranger said he was a member of a Mexican drug cartel and told the woman that plans had changed. He was going to drive the girl across the southern border. The teen would be raped and dismembered if the woman didn’t meet his associate in a suburban Walmart parking lot and pay $10,000 in cash. Chillingly, the man raved about the girl’s blond hair and said she was “so pretty.” The woman then heard what she thought was her daughter in the background. “Mommy, help me,” the muffled voice cried. The executive repeatedly called his daughter’s cell phone, but there was no answer.
It turns out, the girl was nowhere near the Mexican border. She was seated in a classroom in a private New York City school attended by many entertainment-industry kids, finishing up her final exams. Her phone was turned off. The family had fallen prey to a scam that has rattled the elites from New York to L.A.
One private-security specialist — BlackCloak CEO Chris Pierson, whose firm provides digital-protection services to celebrities, prominent executives, and several music labels — has worked with dozens of clients who have been targeted in a similar manner over the past few months. The scam itself isn’t 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 persons where there is a lot to lose — i.e., name, reputation, money — and really, really hone their craft, they’re able to go for a bigger take from these bigger fish,” says Pierson, a former member of the Department of Homeland Security’s Data Privacy Committee and Cybersecurity Subcommittee.
The New York music-industry executive was one such person caught in the crosshairs. “My wife thought it sounded like [our daughter], but I don’t know. She was caught up in the panic of the moment,” says the executive, who didn’t want to use his name for fear of being targeted again. “It was 25 minutes of pure horror. You’re living in this horror movie, the worst possible thing that could happen to you as a parent. It’s the worst possible feeling.”
Before the couple hopped in their car and headed to the assigned Walmart, the executive called Herman Weisberg, a private investigator he has worked with in the past. Weisberg, a former NYPD officer whose firm SAGE Intelligence provides protection for a number of high-profile entertainment-industry figures, immediately called the school and ascertained the teen’s whereabouts, and then determined that the scammers were using a burner phone.
Around the time that Covid lockdowns ended and schools pivoted from online to in-person learning, Weisberg began fielding calls from his base of some 200 clients in New York and L.A. with similar stories.
“The person said a chill went down their spine when they were told not to contact law enforcement,” he says. “And they called me frantically and said, ‘What do I do?’ And I calmed them down and figured out where their child was. That’s really the key with all of this.”
He notes that high-profile figures are particularly vulnerable because the names of their offspring are often public. Those children leave their own digital footprints on various social media platforms — sharing details that are valuable to criminals, like upcoming exams. In fact, exam week gave motivated scammers the perfect opportunity to pounce, given that students are required to turn off their phones for long stretches 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 who had put out way too much information about their children’s lives and scrub what damage had already been done.”
It is unclear how widespread the problem is, but Pierson believes that the criminals are gathering intelligence on their targets through data brokerages, legal outfits that harvest information for marketers.
“Data-broker information is important because it allows [scammers] to drip little pieces of information that will allow them to gain some semblance of credibility with the intended victim — giving them pieces of information that [the victim] thinks are private but really aren’t. And that allows for the trust to occur and in a victim’s mind, for them to go, ‘Holy cow, something’s really wrong.’”
The current crop of swindlers targeting the entertainment industry’s one-percenters appears to be 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 when they were known to be out of town, information gleaned from their social media postings.
The NYPD and FBI have been tracking similar scams. The FBI dubs the phenomenon “virtual kidnapping” and warns that “a caller might attempt to convince a victim that his daughter was kidnapped by having a young female scream for help in the background during the call.” Similarly, the NYPD’s Community Affairs Bureau put out a bulletin titled “Kidnapping/Medical Extortion Telephone Scams” and noted that “on a few occasions the scammer claims a relative of the victim was kidnapped and will be killed unless ransom is paid with a wire transfer through Western Union.”
Simon Newton, who heads up London-based security firm Askari Secure Ltd., says he became aware of the scam, which has expanded to the U.K., a few years ago. Though none of his clientele, which has included Bella Hadid, Kendall Jenner, and Rita Ora, have been targeted, he says he has warned them to be on the lookout.
“Unfortunately in this day and age, it is very difficult to stop these types of scams occurring,” Newton adds. “Particularly for high-net-worth and celebrity figures, much of their information is in the public domain. If you want to avoid these situations, little to no footprint on the internet would be great. But as we know, this is not always possible. Securing your information as much as possible is key.”
With celebrities and high-profile figures, scammers are able to throw out enough publicly available personal details to convince them 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 targeted in a particularly gruesome fashion. The criminals claimed that her family was in danger and sent pictures of mutilated victims as a warning of what they could do if she didn’t pay up. Weisberg says he scoured the internet to see if the images were publicly available. They were not, leading him to wonder if the scammers may have had actual ties to cartels in this unusual case.
Ultimately, the ploy is a subset of the more mundane phone scam, whose victims number in the millions.
“Not many people have private investigators in their Rolodex,” notes the music-industry executive, who never reported his family’s incident to the police. “What happens to people who don’t?”
The rest of us have a relatively easy defense, Weisberg answers. Ask for “proof of life” — a photo with a newspaper, say, that shows the date — as a way of ruling in or out the rare possibility of a legitimate kidnapping.
“The threat is almost never real,” he says. “These people can just sit on their phone and watch from afar and figure out exactly somebody’s daily routine. And they’re just hoping that one person out of 100 takes the bait.”