Have you ever read a ransom note? Know anyone who has written one? A ransom note is a note or brief letter demanding payment for the return of a hostage. The term ransom comes from the French word rançon, meaning redemption. The kidnapper sends the note to the person to whom the ransom demand is made. It’s that simple and that vile.

This blog is prompted by a 2023 kidnapping case where a 46-year-old man was accused of kidnapping a 9-year-old child and wrote a ransom note demanding money for the child’s release. The accused man likely had an IQ of something close to room temperature. Most would describe him as an idiot. That’s because he delivered the ransom note in person to the child’s home, and left a fingerprint on the note.[1] And he did it on camera, which led to his arrest and charging the day after the kidnapping. The victim was unharmed and reunited with family the next day.   

If only all kidnappers were that dumb. But ransom notes are rarely the key to solving a kidnapping. The first ransom note written in America is as fascinating as it is true. “On July 1, 1874, two young sons were taken from their family’s front lawn in Germantown, a northwest Philadelphia neighborhood. The kidnappers released Walter, age 5, for reasons unclear. When Charley failed to return home by nightfall, Christian Ross, a dry-goods merchant, feared the worst. . . Three days later, the first ransom letter arrived at Ross’ store in downtown Philadelphia. Somebody had written the message—ridden with errors in spelling, capitalization and punctuation—in black ink and an unsteady hand. “You wil have to pay us before you git him from us, and pay us a big cent to,” the note read.  “if you put the cops hunting for him you is only defeeting yu own end. . . The second came five days later, stating the ransom amount: “This is the lever that moved the rock that hides him from yu $20,000. Not one doler les—impossible—impossible—you cannot get him without it.”[2]

The most famous kidnapping and arguably the most famous ransom note was the 1932 kidnapping of  Charles Augustus Lindbergh Jr.,  the 20-month-old son of aviators Charles Lindbergh and Anne Morrow Lindbergh. “In 1934, a German immigrant carpenter named Bruno Richard Hauptmann was arrested for the crime. . . he was found guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced to death. . . Newspaper writer H. L. Mencken called the kidnapping and trial “the biggest story since the Resurrection.” Legal scholars have referred to the trial as one of the ‘trials of the century.’ The crime spurred the U.S. Congress to pass the Federal Kidnapping Act, commonly called the “Little Lindbergh Law,’ which made transporting a kidnapping victim across state lines a federal crime. Likely within minutes of the kidnapping, Charles Lindbergh went to the child’s room, where he found a ransom note, containing poor handwriting and grammar, in an envelope on the windowsill. . . The ransom note contained the kidnapper’s ‘signature,’ with black dots rep­re­sent­ing punc­tures in the paper. The brief, handwritten ransom note had many spelling and grammar irregularities: “Dear Sir! Have 50.000$ redy 25 000$ in 20$ bills 15000$ in 10$ bills and 10000$ in 5$ bills After 2–4 days we will inform you were to deliver the mony. We warn you for making anyding public or for notify the Police the child is in gut care. Indication for all letters are Singnature and 3 hohls. At the bottom of the note were two interconnected blue circles surrounding a red circle, with a hole punched through the red circle and two more holes to the left and right.”[3]

The “top five” ransom notes in U.S. History provide an array of forms, languages, and terms.[4] These five ransom notes are exemplars of style, voice, and language.

  • William George Heirens was an American convicted of murder who confessed to three murders in 1946. Heirens was called the Lipstick Killer after a notorious message scrawled in lipstick at a crime scene. At the time of his death, Heirens was reputedly Chicago’s longest-serving prisoner, having spent 65 years in prison.
  • Marion Parker (October 11, 1915 – December 17, 1927) was an American child who was abducted and murdered in Los Angeles, California. Her murder was deemed by the Los Angeles Times “the most horrible crime of the 1920s,” and at the time was considered the most horrific crime in California history.
  • John Paul Getty III was the grandson of American oil tycoon J. Paul Getty, who was once the richest man in the world. While living in Rome in 1973, he was kidnapped by the ‘Ndrangheta and held for a $17 million ransom. The father refused to pay the ransom, so the next letter they received came with one of Getty’s ears and the threat: This is Paul’s ear. If we don’t get some money within 10 days, then the other ear will arrive. In other words, he will arrive in little bits. Getty’s family reluctantly paid the decreased ransom, and their son was safely returned.
  • Jon Benet Ramsey. Her ransom note was long, typewritten, with notable corrections. “Mr. Ramsey, Listen carefully! We are a group of individuals that represent a small foreign faction. We respect your business but not the country that it serves. At this time we have your daughter in our posession. She is safe and unharmed and if you want her to see 1997, you must follow our instructions to the letter. You will withdraw $118,000.00 from your account. $100,000 will be in $100 bills and the remaining $18,000 in $20 bills. Make sure that you bring an adequate size attache to the bank. When you get home you will put the money in a brown paper bag. I will call you between 8 and 10 am tomorrow to instruct you on delivery. The delivery will be exhausting so I advise you to be rested. If we monitor you getting the money early, we might call you early to arrange an earlier delivery of the money.
  • Seventy-two-year-old Annie Laurie Hearin was the wife of wealthy businessman Robert Hearin Sr.; the two had been married for forty-eight years. She was abducted on the afternoon of July 26, 1988. Earlier that day, she had several friends over. Robert came home in the afternoon to find her not home. After calling several friends and family, he called the police to report her missing. There were two ransom notes, one by the kidnapper and one by the victim. A ransom note was found near the door, which was typewritten and contained numerous grammatical and spelling errors. The note stated, in part: “Mr. Robert Herrin, Put these people back in the shape they was in before they got mixed up with School Pictures. Pay them whatever damages they want and tell them all this so then can no what you are doing but dont tell them why you are doing it. Do this before ten days pass. Don’t call police.” The second note was allegedly from his wife: “Bob, If you don’t do what these people want you to do, they are going to seal me up in the cellar of this house with only a few jugs of water. Please save me, Annie Laurie.”

No discussion of ransom notes is complete today without some mention of the scourge now known as ransomware. Ransomware is malware that encrypts a victim’s important digital files in demand of a payment to restore access. If the ransom payment is made, ransomware victims receive a decryption key. If the payment is not made, the malicious actor publishes the data on the dark web or blocks access to the encrypted file in perpetuity. The dreaded first step in ransomware is the now infamous ransomware note. Typically, these notes demand a set amount of cryptocurrency in exchange for access to the victim’s files. If the ransom is paid, the ransomware operator will either provide a copy of the private key used to protect the symmetric encryption key or a copy of the symmetric encryption key itself. It is not as terrible as kidnapping people, but it is nonetheless the modern version of the same crime.

Ransomware gets its name by commandeering and holding assets ransom, extorting their owner for money in exchange for discretion and full cooperation in returning exfiltrated data and providing decryption keys to let business resume. Average ransom demands are skyrocketing, rising to $5.3 million in 2021, a 518% increase from the previous year. But the cost of recovering from a ransomware attack typically far exceeds the ransom payments: the average downtime after a ransomware attack is 21 days; and 66% of ransomware victims report a significant loss of revenue following a successful attack.[5]

The infamous “ransom note” in ransomware is not a “note.” It comes via email. The most common first attack vector is email. An organization’s biggest security weakness is often its people – and attackers are good at finding ways of exploiting this. Well-researched, targeted, legitimate-looking emails are aimed at employees trying to solicit a reaction: a click of a link, an opening of an attachment, or persuading them to divulge credentials or other sensitive information.[6]

The ethics of ransom notes is debatable, but the ethics of ransomware email and crypto payments are ethically profound. A short list of ethical issues includes: Duties to the administration of justice, confidentiality, abetting criminal activity, legality, providing funding for criminal activity, violation of Treasury Department rules because negotiation and payment can encourage future demands, some states have cyber-extortion laws on the books that discourage ransomware payments.[7] An article from National Defense Magazine states that organizations should weigh several ethical implications regarding the decision to pay the ransom. For example, the company may gain the reputation as a paying entity, which makes it a lucrative target. And if paying through cyber insurance, threat actors sometimes research other companies holding such cyber policies, which is often reported in investor disclosures for publicly traded companies.[8]

Should governments pay ransoms to terrorist organizations that unjustly kidnap their citizens? “The United Kingdom and the United States refuse to negotiate with terrorist groups that kidnap and threaten to kill their people. In contrast, continental European countries, such as France and Germany, have regularly paid ransoms to rescue hostages. Who is right? This debate has raged in the public domain in recent years, but no sustained attempt has been made to subject the matter to philosophical scrutiny. This article explores this issue, focusing on the case of ransom payments to terrorist organizations. It contends that the state’s duty to protect its citizens from murder grounds a defeasible obligation to pay ransoms. It considers the objection that a policy of paying ransoms endangers citizens abroad by increasing the likelihood of future kidnappings, and it explains why this objection is not sufficiently weighty. It then identifies a more powerful objection: namely, that a state’s payment of ransoms makes the state complicit in the serious injustices that its ransom payments fund. It concludes that unless states can offset their contributions to such injustices, paying ransoms is wrong.”[9]

Ransom notes, ransomware emails, and other digital forms of demanding payment for crimes committed or threatened has required the need for a psychology of ransom. “In addition to the direct and indirect financial damage, ransomware differs from other forms of cybercrime by employing deep psychological mechanisms. In contrast to almost any other type of malware, ransomware doesn’t conceal its activity; it announces itself to the victim and coerces the target toward action—paying the ransom. Precisely how ransomware leverages the victim’s fears, beliefs, motives and values has evolved over time, both in response to attackers learning from their own mistakes – resulting in victims not paying – and the behavior of victims and the security industry, such as getting better at off-site backups and creating decrypts.”[10]

Lest no nit be left unpicked, there is a ransom/hijacking phenomenon dealing with questions posed by media reps to lawyers on the courthouse steps. Who ever heard of hijacking a question? And if you hijacked a question, would a ransom note follow? It turns out that hijacking a question is what some media reps do in fast-paced media interviews on the courthouse steps. In that world, there are limited opportunities to speak. “To be effective a media warrior must disregard the dictates of politeness ingested taught by most mothers to most children. Here is a well-known media interview scenario. Question: Do you think Bill Clinton should be impeached? Answer: I think the abuse of power by Ken Starr doomed the Office of Independent Counsel and set a dangerous example for a whole generation of prosecutors. Because the proponents of ethical rules for commentators are bringing their considerable skills to bear on the wrong problem, we must ‘hijack’ the commentator-ethics question and refocus the discussion.”[11]

The last word on ransom notes is political. “Fox News host Tucker Carlson lashed out at members of the U.S. Capitol Police who blasted Republican opposition to an independent commission to investigate the violent Jan. 6 insurrection, calling their letter nothing more than a “ransom note” from an “armed political action committee.”[12]

[1] https://www.cnn.com/2023/10/03/us/missing-girl-new-york-found-suspect-tuesday/index.html

[2] https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-story-behind-the-first-ransom-note-in-american-history-180948612/

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lindbergh_kidnapping#:~:text=In%20September%201934%2C%20a%20German,murder%20and%20sentenced%20to%20death.

[4] https://mysterytribune.com/top-11-ransom-note-incidents-in-true-crime-history/  

[5] https://darktrace.com/blog/9-stages-of-ransomware-how-ai-responds-at-every-stage

[6] https://darktrace.com/blog/9-stages-of-ransomware-how-ai-responds-at-every-stage

[7] https://www.nationaldefensemagazine.org/articles/2021/8/17/ethical-legal-implications-of-paying-ransoms

[8] Ibid.

[9] https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/japp.12272

[10] https://www.sentinelone.com/blog/mind-games-the-evolving-psychology-of-ransom-notes/

[11] https://digitalcommons.law.mercer.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1932&context=jour_mlr

[12] https://www.thedailybeast.com/tucker-carlson-calls-us-capitol-police-letter-a-ransom-note-from-armed-political-action-committee

Gary L Stuart

I am an author and a part-time lawyer with a focus on ethics and professional discipline. I teach creative writing and ethics to law students at Arizona State University. Read my bio.

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