Hundreds of people in Southern California have been targeted by criminals hoping to carry out a scheme that law enforcement officials have termed “virtual kidnapping for ransom,” reports the Los Angeles Times. The scammers try to extort money after phoning parents or other kin and falsely convincing them that a loved one is being held hostage. A network of criminals in the U.S. and Mexico have been making the calls since at least 2015, affecting thousands of people in several states, including California, according to Gene Kowel of the FBI in Los Angeles. Officials from the FBI, LAPD and other agencies held a press conference Tuesday to warn potential victims against succumbing to panic if they receive a similar call.
Investigators made their first arrest in connection with the scam last week. Yanette Rodriguez Acosta, 34, of Houston was indicted on charges of wire fraud and conspiracy to commit money laundering. She is charged as part of a ring that used Mexican telephone numbers to call targets in Los Angeles and Beverly Hills, claiming to hold the victims’ children as prisoners. The ring targeted at least 39 victims in California, Texas and Idaho. At least 250 calls were aimed at Los Angeles residents, costing victims roughly $114,000. Officials said some scammers research potential victims on social media.