International and virtual kidnappings often go unreported. The FBI wants to change that

The phone rang, and she answered. What came next was a torrent of emotion.

The woman, whose identity the Federal Bureau of Investigation asked to keep anonymous, had just found out that her husband was being held hostage by kidnappers in Mexico. They’d shot him nine times, she said.

“What goes through your mind is a sense of helplessness. You are lost. You are scared. Obviously, you’re confused,” the woman said. “So there’s a lot of mixed emotions, especially being a mother of five children, and not knowing what to tell your kids.”

She started crying and then did what many people involved in kidnappings don’t do — she called the police.

The woman shared her story at an event the FBI held at its Sacramento field office on July 25 to raise awareness about international and virtual kidnappings. Those types of crimes often go unreported because families are scared to involve law enforcement, FBI officials said.

“They’re scared what might happen to their loved ones if they do,” said Sean Ragan, the special agent in charge of the field office, which is located in Roseville. “And they’re threatened by the subjects that harm will come to their loves ones if they call the police.”

A man who also spoke with reporters at the event said he and his father were kidnapped in Mexico while stopping for drinks after selling their cattle. They were beaten and not given much food or water, he said.

The kidnappers called his mother, who was also living in Mexico at the time, and demanded millions of pesos.

“Obviously, my family does not have that, and then they said OK, give us whatever you’ve got,” said the man, who the FBI also requested his name not be used. “Give us your vehicles. Give us anything. And that’s kinda how it went.”

His mother gave the kidnappers some money and one of their vehicles, he said. But they kept wanting more.

Instead of giving in to the kidnappers, the man’s brother and sister, who were living in the United States, called the FBI. They helped him escape after two weeks in captivity, but his father died in the kidnappers’ custody.

“Definitely get the FBI involved because they definitely were able to help my family kinda navigate the dos and don’ts,” the man said.

For the woman whose husband was being tortured in a foreign country, calling the police helped saved his life. The FBI was able to rescue him and return him to the United States.

“The FBI was amazing since the beginning to the end — their support system, their help in bringing him back home, to unloading him from the plane,” she said. “Being the first person off the plane to get help, medical attention, because he flew all bloody ‘cause they wouldn’t do anything for him in Mexico.”

International kidnappings are tricky, especially for that reason, according to Jose Moreno, supervisor of the FBI’s Bakersfield office. The other countries don’t have to cooperate, and the FBI doesn’t have jurisdiction.

“It’s having to coordinate with them to be able to get them to do what you want them to do to resolve these kidnappings,” he said.

And then there’s virtual kidnappings.

In these cases, scammers trick family members into thinking they have their loved one. The alleged kidnappers then try to convince the targets to pay a ransom before they find out the truth.

“Quite often, it is a hoax, and the person that the subject is saying has been kidnapped actually hasn’t been kidnapped,” Ragan said.

He encourages people who receive these possible scam calls to try to stall and make other phone calls to verify if their loved one has actually been kidnapped. Additionally, he said, ask for proof of life or proof of their family member’s possessions.

If someone determines their relative has actually been kidnapped, that’s the time to call the police, Ragan said. It doesn’t matter what their immigration status is.

“Whether you’re a U.S. citizen. You’re a Mexican citizen. You’re a citizen of some other country. You’re a green card holder. You’re undocumented,” he said. “Please call us because that’s not what we’re concerned about. We’re concerned about your safety and protecting people from being kidnapped.”

The FBI can be reached anytime at 916-746-7000 in its Sacramento office or at 800-CALL-FBI.

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Meghan Bobrowsky, from Scripps College, is a local news reporter for The Sacramento Bee, focusing on breaking news and school funding. She grew up in nearby Davis.