FBI warns both physical and virtual kidnappings are on the rise along US Southern border

Kidnapping/virtual kidnapping extortion crimes are still spiking at the U.S. – Mexico border, according to a warning issued Friday by El Paso’s FBI Field Office.

According to a press release on the FBI government website, the public needs to be aware of this “very serious matter” so they can spot the signs of these crimes and notify the Bureau.

“These types of cases are tragic,” said Special Agent in Charge Jeffrey R. Downey. “it’s not the amount of money involved; it’s the fact innocent victims are tricked into believing their loved ones are in danger and the horror and helplessness they feel as they scramble to secure what they think is their release.”

Would-be swindlers are targeting undocumented immigrants who, themselves, paid so-called “coyotes” to bring them illegally across the border.

“The victims and their family members from their country of origin then become involved in a very frightening extortion scheme for more money,” the release states. “Many of these victims don’t report the incident because of fears they will be deported due to their immigration status.”

The FBI El Paso office stressed that “the focus of the investigation is not a person’s immigration status, but instead the extortion crime.”

The extortionists rely on fear and threats to persuade frightened family members to submit to their demands. Often, the victim’s family, friends, personal property or even their own safety are threatened until the victim feels there is no option but to hand over what cash they have in order to free their loved one.

“Virtual kidnapping for ransom and traditional kidnappings have increased in the region and are some of the most common extortion crimes investigated by FBI El Paso,” according to the release.

One scam that is becoming more common in El Paso involves the extortionists calling random hotel rooms on the U.S. side of the border. The hotel guest is told their hotel is surrounded by “armed enforcers.”

“The criminals convince the guests to take pictures of themselves in ‘tied-up’ positions, to leave their hotel, check into another U.S. hotel, or drive across the border to a Mexico-based hotel. The extortionist then convinces the victim to video-call them and take a screenshot,” explains FBI El Paso. “The criminals will then send the photo to the victim’s family, convince them that their loved one is kidnapped, and coerce them to pay a ransom.

The FBI lists the following red flags to watch out for:

  • Calls are usually made from an outside or non-U.S. area code.
  • May involve multiple, successive phone calls.
  • Calls do not come from the kidnapped victim’s phone.
  • Callers go to great lengths to keep you on the phone.
  • Callers prevent you from calling or locating the “kidnapped” victim.
  • Ransom money is only accepted via wire transfer, cryptocurrency, or Peer 2 Peer payment apps.

Should you receive a call from a stranger demanding a ransom, FBI El Paso suggests you stay calm, slow things down if possible, and don’t share any information about yourself or your family with the caller.

“Request to speak to the victim directly,” FBI El Paso continues. “Ask, ‘How do I know my loved one is okay?'”

Other things to consider include:

  • Request the kidnapped victim call back from his/her cell phone.
  • Listen carefully to the voice of the kidnapped victim if they speak and ask questions only they would know.
  • If they don’t let you speak to the victim, ask them to describe the victim or describe the vehicle they drive, if applicable.
  • While staying on the line with alleged kidnappers, try to call the alleged kidnap victim from another phone or attempt to physically locate the victim.
  • Attempt to text or contact the victim via social media.
  • To buy time, repeat the caller’s request and tell them you are writing down the demand, or tell the caller you need time to get things moving.

Finally, the FBI states you shouldn’t directly challenge or argue with the caller and should keep your voice as low and steady as possible.

If you are staying at a hotel, “hang up, call the front desk immediately and verify what is being told to you.”

If you have any questions about whether the call is a virtual kidnapping or a legitimate kidnapping, contact FBI El Paso at 915-832-5000 or call 911 immediately.

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