On Thursday, November 7, 2013, four individuals were arrested in connection with a virtual kidnapping scam. The scam targeted immigrants in the United States, specifically in areas surrounding Washington, D.C., due to the significant number of immigrants located there, who have traveled from Central America. They often do not have any form of communication with their relatives who are also on their northward journey, which the perpetrators used toward their advantage.
"Virtual kidnapping" is also extremely common in Latin America, especially in Mexico, Brazil, and Guatemala. Due to the high rates of crime in these parts of Latin America, victims are more likely to believe that the perpetrators when they state that they have kidnapped their relatives. Yet, no abductions actually have occurred. The offenders used telemarketing techniques to collect ransom money, by proclaiming that the immigrants' loved ones were being held captive. "They would just randomly run through a sequence of numbers, like one to one-hundred. 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,'" stated Daniel Page, an assistant special agent in charge of United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement-Homeland Security Investigations unit in San Diego.
Using cell phones that were smuggled into prisons in Latin America, inmates often placed the calls and the information was obtained from social networking websites in order to convince families that they have abducted relatives. According to Page, these callers did not know whether or not their victims truly had loved ones who were crossing the border into the United States, but assumed that making a sufficient amount of calls would eventually lead to success.
The offenders have succeeded in many instances since 2007, by using thirty different San Diego phone numbers to randomly call approximately five thousand potential victims a day. According to federal investigators, they collected at least $500,000 in ransom money throughout the years. They often received between $1,000 and $3,000 when callers took the bait. The callers, who where located in Tijuana, Mexico, demanded that the money should be wired because they were holding a relative captive who was illegally immigrating to the U.S. In reality, no individual was truly being held captive.
Though, there were two individuals charged in April of 2011, for kidnapping an individual. A Fresno woman wired $2,500 to a Walmart store in San Diego in order to free her brother-in-law who was being beaten and held against his will in Tijuana. When she knew that her brother-in-law was finally freed, she received yet another call, in which the perpetrators demanded more money. In this moment, she called the Fresno police department, which eventually led to the arrests of a married couple. Both pleaded guilty to money laundering charges, and the investigation continued, resulting in four more arrests on Thursday.
Defendants made their initial court appearance on Friday, and were charged with wire fraud and other crimes that are unknown during this time. They are accused of collecting random payments in San Diego and bringing the money back to Tijuana, Mexico. Those charged are as follows: 63-year old Ruth Graciela Reygoza, from Chula Vista; 42-year old Maria del Carmen Pulido, from East Los Angeles; and two brothers who are American citizens from Tijuana: 25-year old Adrian Rocha and 23-year old Juan Rocha.
A judge ordered the defendants to be held pending a detention hearing that is stated to occur next Thursday. It was not immediately known whether or not they have retained any attorneys.
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