A scammer is reportedly calling up businesses to request ransom money on behalf of Germany's Foreign Ministry. Authorities are worried the fraud could undermine the government's diplomatic efforts.
"In recent weeks, unknown individuals have repeatedly called German businesses," German Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Adebahr told journalists in a press conference on Tuesday. In some instances, the companies were contacted via email, she said.
Germany's Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA) has issued an official notice over the string of incidents. "Last December it was supposedly a member of the German Chancellery, currently it is a 'Daniel Fischer' from the Foreign Ministry," the BKA said. In the messages, "Fischer" claims that German citizens have been kidnapped, for example in the West African country of Mali.
To carry out the scam, the unknown criminal claims to speak in the name of these German authorities. "The Foreign Ministry is said to be addressing the company to request private funds and donations to be able to pay the ransom for the abducted," Adebar said.
It is a recurring pattern: An unexpected call or initial email, then the request for a confidential meeting via email. It's the second message that alerted the Foreign Ministry specifically.
"This email pretends to be from an alleged staff member of the Foreign Ministry, in this case either from the office of Minister of State [Niels] Annen or the personal assistant of the Deputy Minister [Andreas] Michaelis," said Adebahr. The email address may be fake and identifiable as such, but it gives off the impression that it's official, she explained.
Germany's hostage crisis history
The narrative set up in this scam — abductions in Mali, ransom payments through unofficial channels — evokes memories of a previous kidnapping involving German citizens, making it all the more troublesome for the Foreign Ministry.
In 2003, 32 European tourists were abducted in Algeria, including 16 Germans. Known as the "Sahara hostages," they were taken by their kidnappers to neighboring Mali in an ordeal that lasted months. The German government sent its elite GSG 9 anti-terror police squad to help secure their release. Then-Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer and his deputies also went to the region to support the negotiations, which according to media reports at the time involved a ransom amounting to several million euros.
One of the most critical developments happened after the hostages were freed: The German government sent them a bill for the release operation. It is not the first time former German hostages had been asked to pay after they were freed from their abductors; it's in fact part of what is called the Consular Act, a German law that regulates questions of diplomacy. In 2009 the Federal Administrative Court ruled in a landmark decision that hostages have to carry the costs arising from their abduction.
That somewhat controversial decision fits with a basic political principle of the Foreign Ministry: In order not to be susceptible to blackmail, it does not pay ransoms for German citizens. Officially, the ministry never publicly admits to paying any ransom payments in hostage cases, therefore it also doesn't charge the victims ransom repayments, except for transportation costs, for example.
This latest new scam abuses the collective understanding of this situation by suggesting the ransom help request comes from the offices of the two high-ranking officials who oversee the government's Crisis Center. In their roles at the Foreign Ministry, Annen and Michaelis do in fact deal with hostage situations.
"Both are suitable figures to insinuate the urgency of the matter and suggest a certain authenticity of the sender," said Adebahr.
The money-making scam could potentially prove harmful to the Foreign Ministry. The handling of hostage situations is one of the highest priorities in the Crisis Center, said Adebahr.
"Some are made public, some are settled in the background," she explained, stressing that a general understanding of the need for discretion and trust in the Foreign Ministry's method is crucial.
German authorities are indeed treating the scam quite seriously: Both the Berlin public prosecutor's office and the BKA are investigating. Even the Foreign Ministry is sharing the story on a topic it normally doesn't like to talk about.