Weird and Terrible Kidnapping Hoaxes

Perpetrators tell of wanting money, wanting to get lost, and wanting to be found.
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An electronic traffic-condition sign displaying an AMBER alert. (Photo: Bob Bobster/Wikimedia Commons)

An electronic traffic-condition sign displaying an AMBER alert. (Photo: Bob Bobster/Wikimedia Commons)

Two contractors working for the Drug Enforcement Agency in Bogota, Colombia, have just pleaded guilty to a bizarre kidnapping hoax. Nydia Perez and John Soto, a married couple, had sent emails and packages to their superiors at the American embassy in Colombia, supposedly written by anonymous child-abductors, describing a plot to kidnap their own small children. The letters described the threat to the kids, and included photos of the children “engaged in various everyday activities in order to enhance the seriousness of the threat,” according to court documents. When the FBI got involved, Perez implicated their doorman. The whole time, there was no threat to the kids at all; the hoax was an elaborate lie.

The court documents don’t mention the couple’s motive, but it’s pretty easy to guess. From an entirely unscientific review of similar news stories from the past few weeks, it appears that a prime motive for kidnapping hoaxes is the same as it is for real kidnappings: money. It also appears that the perpetrators of a lot of these types of schemes are teenagers, who really didn’t do a good job of thinking things through.

Last month four kids in Long Island demanded $2,000 in ransom money from the parents of a victim who they claimed they had kidnapped. But it was a Bunny Lebowski kind of a plan; they hadn’t actually kidnapped anyone, and the parents knew it. Police soon found them holed up in a Hicksville, New York, motel with a bag of drugs, and later charged them with grand larceny.

The AMBER alert system has come under criticism from criminal justice researchers in the past; professors at the University of Nevada call it "crime-control theater" that can only symbolically address the threat of child abductions, and that causes a backlash in public perception when it fails to deliver results.

Coincidentally, $2,000 is the same amount that a Hackensack, New Jersey, teenager recently demanded of his girlfriend’s parents for her safe return. The girl was in on it; she had run away from home to live with her boyfriend, but they soon needed cash for “unknown legal issues,” according to news reports. The boyfriend called her parents’ house and said he had abducted her, while she yelled “help, help!” in the background. Their ruse was discovered when the girl’s little sister overheard the phone conversation and recognized the guy’s voice as the boyfriend, whom she had met. They were both arrested.

In cases where teenagers fake their own kidnappings, it seems that if it’s not about extorting money, it’s about attracting attention—but again, in ways that just haven’t been well thought through. Many instances of self-generated abduction-scares read as cries for help—stories told by teens desperate to be saved from a danger that they themselves have invented. And teenage girls seem especially susceptible to these types of dramatic rescue fantasies.

A 16-year-old in Florida recently faked her own abduction, prompting a state-wide AMBER alert and an expensive search. She had called her parents to say she had been kidnapped by “two guys in a pickup truck,” and then switched off her phone. But when she was later discovered lying by the side of a road less than a mile away from her house, she told police that she had “decided to play the sympathy card” after a break-up with her boyfriend. She apparently had a history of tweeting about wishing she could disappear.

Back in 2012, a tweet from another 16-year-old girl claiming an intruder had broken into her house went viral; it turned out to be a cover story while she ran away from home. “The message prompted the hashtag 'helpfindkara' to trend on the social network, and caused some 6,000 calls to 911,” according to CBS News. After she sent the tweet, the girl called a taxi, got on a train to New York City, and traveled to several cities before she was found and returned to her parents.

In these situations, the children and their parents are sometimes fined thousands of dollars, so as to reimburse authorities for the cost of the search. But aside from the financial cost and the man-hours expended looking for the kids (and aside from the emotional toll it must take on families and friends), there is also the gradual, insidious damage to public vigilance to consider. Kidnapping hoaxes have the potential to cause a “boy who cried wolf” effect on the public.

The AMBER alert system has come under criticism from criminal justice researchers in the past; professors at the University of Nevada call it "crime-control theater" that can only symbolically address the threat of child abductions, and that causes a backlash in public perception when it fails to deliver results. The same paper cites research showing that “hoaxes or simple misunderstandings” may account for as many as 20 percent of AMBER alert cases in a given year—and that when authorities overuse AMBER alerts, they “run the serious risk of taxing the public’s attention span and causing what has been called 'AMBER fatigue.'"

AMBER alerts are only issued when the missing person is under the age of 18. But of course these types of acts of desperation aren’t limited to kids and teenagers. Consider the story of 39-year-old Tiffany Bray from Fletcher, Oklahoma, a classic “runaway bride” story, with a twist. Feeling stifled in her relationship a few months before her wedding in 2010, Bray abruptly drove away in her fiance's truck to meet up with a new man she’d met online, without telling anyone. Days passed with no word. Then, Bray must have regretted the hasty decision and wanted to come back home, but wasn’t quite ready to accept responsibility for what she’d done. She sent her frantic fiancé a terrifying text: “Need help. Somewhere in Lawton in dark room. White man. Please [expletive] help me. Not sure I [can] use this again.”

Bray’s old boss was able to hack into her work email, providing authorities with the name of her lover. Police located the man’s phone, and a search party tracked her down at a Texas motel, almost a month after she had disappeared. Bray didn’t end up staying with her lover, or going back to her fiance in Oklahoma. In another twist, she later married an old friend who had participated in the search for her when she was missing.

“I'm very grateful that they did find me,” Bray told ABC’s 20/20 years later. “Because I don't even know to this day where I'd be if they wouldn't have found me.” Which is odd, when you think about it, because she was never really lost in the first place.

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