Hotel guests, migrant families become targets of ‘virtual kidnapping’ schemes

FBI reports rash of extortion cases involving bogus abduction of Americans and smugglers hanging on to foreigners until relatives fork over more money

EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) – Extortion attempts involving bogus and actual kidnappings are up in El Paso, and the victims often are migrants who just came across the border or guests staying at local hotels.

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

“What happens is an individual will call you – typically from a phone outside the US – keep you on the phone and prey on your panic, your emotions. He doesn’t give you enough time to think,” said Jeffrey R. Downey, FBI special agent in charge in El Paso. “The perpetrators will often go to great lengths to engage victims in conversation to prevent them from being able to take a breath and verify their stories.”

Victims are made to believe they are being watched and told any contact with law enforcement will result in harm to them or their loved ones. The criminals not only hide behind a telephone or social media, but in the case of El Paso, they’re calling from across the border in Mexico.

Other cases have involved foreigners who paid smugglers to get them across the US-Mexico border. Once in El Paso, they are told their families need to send more money before they’re allowed to go on to their final destinations.

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

The bureau and US immigration authorities a few weeks ago rescued six migrants being held at a home in the Sunset Heights neighborhood.

Jeffrey R. Downey, special agent in charge of the FBI El Paso Field Office. (courtesy FBI)

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

And as far as hotel guests go, the FBI leader urged them to watch their use of social media.

The criminals “go on social media and are able to track what people are doing,” Downey said. “Unfortunately, when people are traveling, they share that on social media sites and extortionists will take advantage of that. People provide too much personal information on social media.”

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

Downey urges victims of telephone or electronic extortion attempts to immediately report them to police at 9-1-1 or to the FBI at (915) 832-5000 in El Paso or www.ic3.gov nationwide.

“Time is of the essence, the sooner we get a call, the better chance we have of resolving the matter and recovering the victim safely,” he said.

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