Virtual Kidnappings: Telemarketers Call Immigrants, Pretend They’ve Kidnapped Loved Ones

Virtual kidnappings that targeted immigrants using telemarketing schemes have led police to arrest four people.

In an indictment that was unsealed on Friday, federal investigators outlined a plot where telemarketers told immigrants that their loved ones had been kidnapped and shook them down for ransom money.

No one had actually been kidnapped, but the telephone threats did occasionally work and in the last six years the virtual kidnappings netted at least $500,000, federal investigators said.

The calls originated from Tijuana, Mexico, and used close to 30 phone numbers from San Diego. In all the telemarketers made up to 5,000 calls every day, telling people on the other end of the line that they’d captured a family members trying to enter the United States illegally. The callers demanded the person wire money for the relative’s release.

It was not the most efficient of schemes. Though the callers intended to go after immigrants, the numbers were dialed randomly, so they had to wade through many dead ends before they came to a person who might actually have a family member trying to enter the United States.

To increase their percentages, the calls went to Washington, D.C., which has a large number of Central American immigrants.

“They would just randomly run through a sequence of numbers, like 1 to 100,” said Daniel Page, assistant special agent with the U.S. Immigration and Customs and Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations unit in San Diego. “They’re just like your professional telemarketer. They have a script. `You need to pay this money. If you don’t, something’s going to happen.’ ”

It was a real life kidnapping that helped lead investigators to discover the virtual kidnapping scheme. A woman in Fresno wired money to a Walmart in San Diego to free her brother-in-law who was being held in Tijuana, but when she received another ransom call after her brother-in-law was already freed, the woman called Fresno police.

Police arrested a married couple, which led them to the entire virtual kidnapping operation. Police have charged four people in the scheme.

Virtual kidnappings are not a uniquely American scheme, officials note. The scam is also common in Latin America, where high crime rates and a large number of actual kidnappings make the calls much more effective.