Inmates in Mexico City prisons are cold-calling United States telephone numbers in a kidnapping extortion scam that has ensnared thousands of people in just one U.S. state, according to the FBI.
California-based media outlet KQED spoke to one Los Angeles woman who fell victim to the hoax, in which prisoners claim to have kidnapped the targeted person’s daughter or son and demand a large ransom for their release.
“The first thing I heard was a woman screaming. Terrified screaming,” said the woman, who was given the alias Sara to protect her identity.
“I was like, ‘Calm down, calm down, I can’t understand you.’ And then I said one of my daughter’s names,” she explained.
Sara’s story, KQED said, is typical of the modus operandi the inmates use and the reaction of those targeted.
After she called out her daughter’s name, a man came on to the line and told Sara that her daughter had been kidnapped and that if she wanted her back, she would have to follow his instructions.
In Sara’s case, the demands were to wire a large sum of money to an account in Mexico and also to purchase electronics at a local store and drop them off at a specified location.
“It never entered that my mind that it wasn’t real. I was two steps away from a panic attack,” she told KQED.
“The men on the other end of the line were screaming at me, ‘Is this all [my daughter] is worth, is this all the money I can get?’”
While she was speaking to the scam artists, Sara received a text message from her daughter which coincidentally added credence to the alleged kidnappers’ claim.
“Did you pay it?” the message said, although Sara’s daughter was referring to a college bill rather than a ransom demand.
Sara tried to respond to the message but her texts didn’t go through and by the time she finally heard from her daughter eight hours later, she had already wired thousands of dollars to Mexico.
“They caught my weakness, which is my kids. And they were very, very good at it,” she said.
Thousands more Californians have fallen for the same or similar scams that originated in Mexico.
According to Los Angeles FBI agent Erik Arbuthnot, the number of extortion calls from the country first spiked in 2015.
“We are suddenly inundated with not a couple of cases a month. Now we are getting thousands of phone calls all over the United States,” he said.
Video filmed in a Mexico City penitentiary that was aired by Imagen TV in January 2017 showed inmates busily engaging in the practice.
Arbuthnot said that the con artists have targeted wealthy California areas such as Santa Barbara and Beverly Hills and that they speak English, often because they have previously lived in the United States. The callers usually threaten to kill their victims’ sons or daughters if they call the police.
“The victims are so traumatized because they really believe that they heard their daughter or their son,” the FBI agent said.
While Sara’s case remains open, statistics show that the probability that those who targeted her will be charged with the crime are extremely low.
Just two people — a Mexico City prison inmate and a Houston woman who collected ransom money — have been indicted for making extortion calls to the United States.
Working together, Arbuthnot said, they had managed to scam around 50 Californians. They face prison sentences of up to 10 years.
Despite limited success in bringing perpetrators to justice, Mexican and U.S. law enforcement agencies stress that they are working together to combat and prosecute the crime.
A Mexico City prosecutor who focuses on kidnapping and extortion cases said that the callers work in small groups but it’s possible that large cartels are also involved.
“We cannot dismiss that is a possibility,” Willy Zuñiga said. He also said that whenever there is crying and claims of immediate danger during a call, it is not a real kidnapping.
While relatively new in the United States, kidnapping extortion schemes are comparatively common in Mexico.
Extortion overall is also on the rise, with statistics showing that the crime has consistently trended upwards since December.
Source: KQED (en)