Four Americans have been charged in San Diego for helping in a "virtual kidnapping" hoax launched in Mexico designed to make victims believe loved ones were being held hostage, unsealed indictments revealed Friday.
The Associated Press reported
that Ruth Graciela Reygoza, 63, of Chula Vista; Maria del Carmen Pulido, 42, of East Los Angeles; and brothers Adrian Rocha, 25, and Juan Rocha, 23, were arrested Thursday in the virtual kidnapping investigation that began with an actual kidnapping earlier. The suspects are American citizens who live in Tijuana.
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Federal authorities said that callers based in Tijuana would use as many as 30 San Diego phone numbers to make up to 5,000 calls a day to immigrants demanding cash is wired to save a loved one.
"They would just randomly run through a sequence of numbers, like 1 to 100," Daniel Page, assistant special agent in charge of U.S. Immigration and Customs and Enforcement's Homeland Security Investigations unit in San Diego, told the Associated Press. "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.'"
In reality, no one had been kidnapped.
The AP reported that the four arrested Thursday were indicted on wire fraud and other crimes for allegedly picking up ransom payments in the San Diego area and bringing the money to Tijuana.
The investigation is related to a 2011 case in which a Fresno woman wired $2,500 to a San Diego-area Wal-Mart to free a brother-in-law who was held for several days in Tijuana, authorities said.
When the alleged kidnappers demanded more money after her brother-in-law was freed, she contacted police and federal agents who set up a sting. That led to the arrest of a married couple and now Thursday's arrests.
The U.S. Consulate General in Guadalajara issued a warning last year to U.S. residents about the potential of virtual kidnapping.
Suspects pulled information from social media websites to make the fake abductions seem real.
The New York Times reported
in 2008 that the crime had reached critical levels in Mexico because the virtual abductions capitalized on the fear of real kidnappings in the country. Authorities said criminals made off with about $20 million over a six month period from such fake calls.
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