Tourists receive threatening calls in hotel rooms in El Paso. Drug cartel threats appear in text messages. Cloned voices.
From scary phone scams to virtual kidnappings continue to evolve with technology into sophisticated schemes stretching across the border, an El Paso FBI supervisor said.
Thrilling calls can begin with a woman or child crying under a terrifying false premise that a loved one has been abducted, although there is no actual abduction.
“They’re pulling those strings out of fear, out of love, and they want to keep you on the phone,” FBI Supervisory Special Agent Andres Hernandez said.
Victims in the El Paso area have already lost a total of about $30,000 in phone scams this year and once the money runs out, it’s gone, Hernandez said Tuesday at a news conference by teleconference.
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In one case, a victim, mistakenly believing a family member was being held hostage, crossed the border and deposited cash into a Mexican ATM, Hernandez said.
“It’s very easy to have casualties (in El Paso) because of the proximity to the border,” said Hernandez, supervisor of the FBI’s Violent Crimes and Major Offenders Squad in El Paso.
Fewer than 15 cases of telephone extortion have been reported to the El Paso FBI this year. But the number of victims could be much higher because people are often too embarrassed to report they’ve been cheated, Hernandez said.
Virtual kidnappings continue in El Paso
Virtual kidnappings have been reported in the United States and around the world as far away as Australia.
The scam, which has plagued the El Paso-Juárez area for more than a decade, is also known as the “hostage” scam and telephone extortion.
The system works similarly to other phone scams by using panic and pressure to trick a victim into sending money via a prepaid debit card, wire transfer, or mobile payment services such as Venmo , Cash App and Apple Pay.
The FBI said victims are told that a loved one has been kidnapped, although no one is actually kidnapped. The scammers then try to keep the victims online until they are paid.
Some victims are called randomly, while in other cases the scammers have the names of the victim’s children and other information pulled 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 United States while travelers are out of touch.
Scammers tend to target older adults and undocumented immigrants, who may be reluctant to report crimes due to their legal status, Hernandez added.
What if you get a call saying a loved one has been kidnapped?
“First of all, relax; I know it’s hard to do,” Hernandez said. “That’s easier said than done. When you get one of those phone calls, your heartbeat is going to explode.”
When you hear someone crying on the phone, don’t say the name of a loved one, or the scammer could then claim to be holding that person hostage, authorities have advised.
- If you think it’s a scam, law enforcement usually advises you to hang up. Do not engage with the scammer.
- If you believe the kidnapping is real, ask to speak with the person believed to have been kidnapped and try to reach them on another phone, text or social network.
In some elaborate cases, scammers are known to have the supposed kidnapped person busy with another call while phoning the victim to demand a ransom.
Call 911 if you think this is a real abduction and document what is happening. And if you’re sending money, be sure to get a name and an account or transaction number, Hernandez said.
Hotel calls and death threat text messages from the Mexican Cartel
There are several variations of telephone extortion, although all of them are predicated on fear.
One variant that is making the rounds is believed to be a Mexican cartel death threat sent via text message, Hernandez said.
The FBI said 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 give us money, we’ll leave you alone.
The caller will claim that men are waiting outside to watch the victim or his family, the FBI said.
Drug cartel phone scam:El Paso police say not to engage with ‘drug cartel’ phone scammers threatening businesses
Scam artists claiming to be part of a drug cartel have also been known to call random hotel rooms in El Paso and then threaten to kidnap anyone who answers the phone.
Law enforcement officials said the phone scammers are not believed to be actual drug cartel members. In some cases, the scammers even pretend to be law enforcement agents.
Two weeks ago, a scammer on the phone claimed to be from the El Paso Sheriff’s Office, claiming a victim had an arrest warrant and needed to pay to avoid arrest, Hernandez said. The scam was elaborate enough that the scammer had detailed street information in the area and a voicemail set up pretending to be with the sheriff’s office.
This variant of phone deception is known as a money order scam. Other scammers will pretend to be the IRS, saying there are taxes owed; US 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 service unless they are paid immediately.
Real law enforcement won’t call people and tell them they’ll be arrested if they don’t pay a fine. And if utility customers have any doubts about a call, they should call the number on their monthly bill, officials said.
In virtual kidnapping case in Houston, crooks apparently copied young woman’s voice using voice cloning technology, normally used to help throat cancer patients and for movies Hollywood, Hernandez said.
The crooks somehow recorded the woman, cloned her voice to call her father, telling him that she had been kidnapped and that a ransom should be sent to Mexico, Hernandez said.
“Fortunately for this family, the daughter called her mother and said, ‘No, I’m fine. I don’t know what’s going on. The father is sure it was the daughter’s voice,’ said Hernández.
Who is behind the virtual kidnappings?
The FBI has information that virtual kidnappings and other phone scams in the El Paso area are being carried out by criminal groups inside Juárez prisons.
Some of the callers speak perfect English, and the FBI suspects some may have grown up in the United States before ending up in jail in Mexico, Hernandez said.
Mexican prisons have been described as “extortion factories” where inmates spend their days calling victims on their cellphones.
“They go to work every day,” Hernandez said, adding that the FBI was working with Mexican authorities to help arrest the extortionists.
Scammers use fake computer-generated “call numbers” to eventually call thousands of phones a day, hoping to get at least one victim hooked, the FBI said. Telephone numbers are frequently changed and difficult to find.
Similar rackets have been reported in prisons in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic.
Archive 2017:Virtual kidnapping cases have spread from Mexico to the United States, FBI says
Virtual kidnapping scammers in the El Paso area have demanded ransoms ranging from $500 to $8,000 and up to $23,000 in cartel threats, although the scammers tend to quickly reduce the amount of ransoms in hopes of being paid, the FBI said.
“It’s very well done,” Hernandez said. “They do this for a living.”
Daniel Borunda can be reached at 915-546-6102; email@example.com; @BorundaDaniel on Twitter.