SILVER SPRING, MD. — Caroline Kenner considers herself intelligent, mindful, and tech-savvy; she has been a Witch since 1980 and, with her husband Jason, run the Fool’s Dog, a company that turns tarot decks into mobile apps. Neither her mental acumen nor her wisdom prepared her for the call she received Friday morning, however.
“We have your daughter,” is what the voice said, immediately after a scream that very well could have been Kenner’s child, who was due to board a plane at that time.
As it happened, Kenner’s daughter had inadvertently picked up her husband’s phone, a wrinkle that made it all the more difficult to extricate herself from what was turning out to be a virtual kidnapping scam.
“It was like being ensorcelled,” Kenner recalled later. Having lost two children within hours of their birth, and with her adult daughter having recently come through health difficulties of her own, the words struck at the core of her being. “They specifically target mothers with daughters,” Kenner said.
What makes this scam effective — even against people who think they wouldn’t fall for it — is the fact that victims are kept off balance and isolated.
Kenner spent eight hours collecting and sending money to ensure her daughter’s safety. She was given specific driving directions that made it clear the person on the other end of the line was tracking her location, and she was told to keep her phone’s speaker on. This made it difficult to single an alert the bank teller or the employees at any of the many shops on Triangle Lane from where she sent money orders.
In addition, whenever she was in the car, she was being regaled with specific details about what would become of her daughter if she did not comply. Kenner would not share those specifics. She only said that they kept her in a state of panic and terror during the entire ordeal, which only ended when all the money-order shops nearby were closed.
Each time she went inside, Kenner was instructed to send $1,900 — just under the report limit — to a different individual in Ixtapaluca, Mexico. Afterward, she was ordered to tear up the receipt, she explained.
Two different men, playing the roles of good cop and bad, alternated in tormenting her. She said that first one would say he was trying to help her save her daughter, and than the other, his purported supervisor, would step in with graphic threats.
From what Kenner has gathered about this gang and its operation, all the names to which she sent her money were fakes. Since the name of the recipient must match some form of ID, she has surmised that the actual people may have been themselves victims of identity theft.
She has also learned many people in particular areas, including Washington, New York City and Los Angeles, have been targeted; a 2016 article in the Washington Post had so many details in common with her story that she’s convinced it was the exact same perpetrators.
According to an October 2017 FBI article, Virtual Kidnapping Fraud has been around for decades. “Once limited to Mexico and Southwest border states, [the scam] has evolved so that U.S. residents anywhere could be potential victims,” reads the report. Consistent with Kenner’s experience, many of these scams, especially in recent years, have originated from Mexico.
“Between 2013 and 2015, investigators in the FBI’s Los Angeles Division were tracking virtual kidnapping calls […] almost all of these schemes originate from within Mexican prisons,” the FBI reports. Originally only Spanish-speaking victims were targeted. However, according to the FBI:
In 2015, the calls started coming in English, and something else happened: The criminals were no longer targeting specific individuals, such as doctors or just Spanish speakers. Now they were choosing various cities and cold-calling hundreds of numbers until innocent people fell for the scheme.
The new tactic, as the FBI writes, “vastly increased the potential number of victims.” That included Kenner, who lives on the East Coast.
After Kenner’s ordeal was over, the FBI asked her to visit each of the locations again to find out to whom she sent the money. This was a necessary part for the FBI investigation, she explained.
Driving around this second time was also instructive in helping her understand that it was more than money she lost. Turned around again and again during the ordeal, she’s now discovered that her normally acute sense of direction has been diminished. She believes that’s evidence that she’s suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
“For me this is not a financial death blow, although it is extremely difficult, and poorly timed as well,” she said. “I am by no means asking the community for money.”
She added, “During my eight-hour ordeal, I was sustained by the thought of how many of my friends, longtime magical contacts, and graduated students would be sending their most severe spirits to help the criminals fully to understand their need to find a better way of life.”
What she is calling upon Witches and other magic-using Pagans to do is hex the perpetrators.
“I have served community needs faithfully for decades, and this is my time of need. . . . It would be a noble deed to decimate an organized crime ring’s business enterprise. We would be helping our fellow citizens by doing this work, on both sides of the Rio Grande. Destroying the business of these criminals would also directly help all the people this evil enterprise is going to victimize in the future. Cursing this crime syndicate would be like helping to take out the trash as a courtesy to our Mexican neighbors!”
Kenner carefully listed the aliases she obtained: Sergio Gallard Mendoza, Joanna Cuevas Marino, Yair Israel Vega Barrera, Shari Kikey Mucino Soriano, Fabiola Viridiania Benitez Vital, Martin Navarro Zapata, and Sheyla Gabriela Tahuilan, as well as the two men who double-teamed her on the phone.
“This is not about social and economic inequality between citizens of the U.S. and Mexico,” she added.
“This is about a gang of cruel thieves who make their living extorting money using the Envios Barrios services that honest people use to send money to their families in Central and South America. . . . These criminals work 9 a.m. to whenever the money-sending shops in their victim’s area close, and then they relax, collect their ill-gotten gains, and go home to their criminal families.
“May ruin fall upon their businesses, may salt rise in their land, may their voices choke in their throats, may the harsh light of exposure bring the judgement and justice they deserve now and in the next existence, by the spirits below and above, so mote it be.”
Her friend and colleague Sara Mastros even wrote a spell to use, for those who don’t have one handy; it uses the Mexican flag as a focus:
By the green of independence, we call the powers of the land.
By the white of purity & faith, we call the divine.
By the red blood of heroes, we call the ancestors, the mighty dead.
We call the eagles of righteousness: keen of eye, sharp of claw.
The eagles circle over Ixtapaluca.
They seek the malditos — the wrongdoers.
Sharp-eyed eagles see the multi-headed viperous criminal syndicate.
The criminals cower in fear.
There is nowhere to hide.
See the eagles circle.
See the eagles swoop,
Sharp talons extended.
The eagles dismember.
The eagles rip and tear until only fragments of their business remain.
Rip and tear! Rip and tear! Rip and tear!
We seal our work with the spirit of prickly-pear,
Whose flowers speak of the unconquerable and undefeatable power
Of mother’s love, by the power of the mother of all.
Thank you, mother.
Thank you, spirits.
Thank you, eagles.
Thank you, magical sisters and brothers.
By the power of three times three, our will be done. So mote it be.
For more on what to do if you are a victim of Virtual Kidnapping or how to protect yourself, go to the FBI website.