Tourists getting menacing calls in El Paso hotel rooms. Drug cartel threats showing up in text messages. Cloned voices.
Frightening virtual kidnapping phone scams keep evolving with technology in sophisticated schemes extending over the border, an El Paso FBI supervisor said.
The heart-pounding calls can begin with a woman or child crying under a terrifying false premise that a loved one was abducted, though there’s no actual kidnapping.
“They pull on those strings of fear, love and they want to keep you on the phone,” FBI Supervisory Special Agent Andres Hernandez said.
El Paso-area victims have lost a total of about $30,000 in phone extortion scams this year already and once the money is gone, it’s gone, Hernandez said Tuesday on a teleconference news briefing.
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In one case, a victim, falsely believing a family member was held hostage, walked over the border and deposited money into a Mexican ATM, Hernandez said.
“It’s very easy to get victims (in El Paso) because of the proximity to the border,” said Hernandez, supervisor of the FBI’s Violent Crimes and Major Offender Squad in El Paso.
There have been less than 15 phone extortion cases reported to the El Paso FBI this year. But the number of victims could be much higher because people often are too embarrassed to report that they were tricked, Hernandez said.
Virtual kidnappings continue in El Paso
Virtual kidnappings have been reported across the United States and internationally as far away as Australia.
The scam, which has been in the El Paso-Juárez area for over a decade, also is known as the “hostage” scam and telephone extortion.
The scheme operates similar to other phone scams by using panic and pressure to get a victim to send money through a prepaid debit card, a wire transfer or mobile payment services such as Venmo, Cash App and Apple Pay.
The FBI said that victims are told that a loved one has been abducted, although no one is actually kidnapped. The scammers then try to keep the victims on the line until they are paid.
Some victims are phoned at random, while in other cases, scammers have the names of the victim’s children and other information culled from Facebook and other social media, Hernandez said.
The FBI advises visitors to Mexico not to post travel plans and photos on social media. Scammers can use information to target family in the U.S. while travelers are out of communication.
Scammers tend to target older adults and undocumented immigrants, who may be reluctant to report crimes because of their legal status, Hernandez added.
What if you get a call saying a loved one was kidnapped?
“First thing, relax; I know it’s hard to do,” Hernandez said. “It’s easier said than done. When you get one of these phone calls, your heart rate is going to go up off the roof.”
When you hear a person crying on a phone, do not blurt out a loved one’s name because the scammer could then claim to be holding that person hostage, authorities advised.
- If you feel it’s a scam, law enforcement generally advises to hang up. Don’t engage with the scammer.
- If you feel the kidnapping is real, ask to speak with the person who is supposedly kidnapped and try to reach the person on another phone, text or social media.
In some elaborate cases, scammers have been known to have the supposed kidnapped person busy on another call while phoning the victim to ask for a ransom.
Call 911 if you feel it’s a real abduction and document what is occurring. And if you do send money, make sure to get a name and an account or transaction number, Hernandez said.
Hotel calls and Mexican cartel death threat texts
There are several variations of phone extortion, though all feed on fear.
One variation making the local rounds is supposedly a Mexican cartel death threat sent via text message, Hernandez said.
The FBI said that the threat follows a script similar to: My name is so-and-so and I work for the Sinaloa cartel. We were paid to kill you and your family, but if you pay us money we’ll leave you alone.
The caller will claim to have men waiting outside watching the victim or their family, the FBI said.
Drug cartel phone scam:El Paso police say don’t engage with ‘drug cartel’ phone scammers threatening businesses
Scammers claiming to be from a drug cartel also have been known to make calls to random hotel rooms in El Paso and then threaten to kidnap whoever answers the phone.
Law enforcement officials have said that phone scammers are not believed to be actual drug cartel members. In some cases, scammers will even claim to be law enforcement officers.
Two weeks ago, a phone scammer claimed to be with the El Paso Sheriff’s Office, saying that a victim had an arrest warrant and had to pay to avoid being arrested, Hernandez said. The scam was elaborate enough that the scammer had detailed information about area streets and a voicemail set up pretending to be with the Sheriff’s Office.
That variant of telephonic deception is known as the warrants scam. Other scammers will claim to be the IRS, saying there are taxes owed; U.S. Customs and Border Protection, saying a fine must be paid because a vehicle in the victims’ name was found with drugs at the border; and utility companies threatening to cut off service unless they are paid immediately.
Real law enforcement officers will not call people saying they will be arrested if they don’t pay a fine. And if utility customers have doubts about a call, they should call the number on their monthly bill, officials have said.
In one virtual kidnapping case in Houston, scammers apparently copied a young woman’s voice using voice cloning technology, normally used to help throat cancer patients and for Hollywood movies, Hernandez said.
The scammers somehow recorded the woman, cloned her voice to call her father, telling him she was kidnapped and a ransom should be wired to Mexico, Hernandez said.
“Fortunately for that family, the daughter called her mother and said, ‘No, I’m fine. I don’t know what’s going on.’ The dad is certain that was the daughter’s voice,” Hernandez said.
Who’s behind virtual kidnappings?
The FBI has information that virtual kidnappings and other phone scams in the El Paso region are run by criminal groups inside Juárez prisons.
Some of the callers speak perfect English and the FBI suspects some possibly grew up in the U.S. before ending up in prison in Mexico, Hernandez said.
Mexican prisons have been described as “extortion factories” where inmates spend their days dialing for victims on cellphones.
“They go to work every day,” Hernandez said, adding that the FBI is working with Mexican authorities to help stop extortionists.
Scammers use phony computer-generated “drop numbers” to possibly call thousands of phones a day, hoping to get at least one victim on the hook, the FBI said. The phone numbers are frequently changed and difficult to trace.
Similar rackets have been reported in prisons in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic.
Archives 2017:Virtual kidnapping cases spread from Mexico to US, FBI says
El Paso-area virtual kidnapping scammers have asked for ransoms ranging from $500 to $8,000 and up to $23,000 in the cartel threats, though scammers tend to decrease ransom amounts quickly in hopes of getting paid, the FBI said.
“It’s done very well,” Hernandez said. “They do this for a living.”
Daniel Borunda may be reached at 915-546-6102; email@example.com; @BorundaDaniel on Twitter.