Hotel guests, migrant families become targets of ‘virtual kidnapping’ programs | KTAB

FBI reports massive racketeering cases involving Americans kidnapped and smugglers clinging to foreigners until relatives got more money

EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) – Extortion attempts involving fake and actual kidnappings are taking place in El Paso, and the victims are often migrants who have just crossed the border or guests staying at local hotels.

The FBI’s El Paso Field Office has investigated eight cases of so-called “virtual kidnappings” this year, compared with 10 in all of 2021. In one case, a hotel guest’s family paid $8,000 for the “release” of a loved one after the victim was tricked into sending a photo of herself in a dangerous situation. The guest was told that a group of “armed enforcers” were ready to enter his room and harm him if he did not send the requested images.

“What happens is that a person calls you – usually from a phone outside the US – to keep you on the phone and deal with your panic, your emotions. He doesn’t give you enough time to think,” said Jeffrey R. Downey, an FBI special agent in El Paso. “The perpetrators will often go to great lengths to engage victims in conversation to prevent them from catching their breath and verifying their story.”

Victims must believe that they are being watched and that any contact with the police will harm them or their loved ones. Not only do the criminals hide behind a phone or social media, but in the case of El Paso, they are calling from across the border in Mexico.

In other cases, foreigners were involved who paid smugglers to get them across the US-Mexico border. Once in El Paso, they are told that their families must send more money before they can continue to their final destination.

“The victims and their relatives (abroad) then get involved in a very terrifying extortion scheme for more money. Many of these victims are not reporting the incident for fear that they will be deported because of their immigration status,” Downey said.

The agency and the US Immigration Service rescued six migrants trapped in a house in the Sunset Heights neighborhood a few weeks ago.

Jeffrey R. Downey, Special Agent of the FBI El Paso Field Office. (courtesy of FBI)

Downey urged people held against their will by psychological threats to seek help regardless of their immigration status. “We will make sure the victim is safe and protect the victims and (their families). We will work with the US Attorney’s Office and (Homeland Security) to ensure that victims’ rights are protected in those situations,” he said.

And as for hotel guests, the FBI chief urged them to keep an eye on their social media use.

The criminals “go on social media and can follow what people are doing,” Downey said. “Unfortunately, when people travel, they share it on social media sites and blackmailers will take advantage of that. People give too much personal information on social media.”

The FBI suggests that you don’t share too many details of your trip until after the trip is complete.

Downey urges victims of telephone or electronic extortion attempts to immediately report them to the police on 1-1- or to the FBI at (915) 832-5000 in El Paso or nationwide.

“Time is of the essence, the sooner we get a call, the better the chance we can solve the case and find the victim safely,” he said.

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