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Mexican extortion scheme spreads to Texas

August 14, 2014

“Virtual kidnapping” ransom schemes have migrated from Mexico to El Paso according to border city medical doctors. Criminal groups call the physicians and tell them a loved one has been kidnapped, and demand that a ransom payment be wired to Mexico.

This development is ominous because it indicates the spread of socially destabilizing extortion rackets from the Northern Triangle and Mexico into a U.S. border state. Whether drug cartels, human smugglers, cuota syndicates, street gangs, or garden variety con artists are behind the scheme isn’t really the point.

The thing to do is to educate the people who are at risk for being targeted, to persuade them to report such incidents to law enforcement, and to refuse payment. Otherwise, if the ball really gets rolling and Americans comply with ransom demands more often, then that will drive up the amounts demanded and the trend will become more difficult to stop.

Gives a whole new meaning to the phrase, “doctors without borders”… From the El Paso Times (h/t @1389):

‘Virtual kidnapping’ scam targets El Paso doctors

Scam strikes area medical professionals, does not appear cartel-related

By Daniel Borunda / El Paso Times

Posted:   08/02/2014

A terrifying telephone scam known as a “virtual kidnapping” is targeting doctors in El Paso and other Texas border cities.

An El Paso Police Department spokesman on Friday confirmed that police are aware of the extortion scam and a warning that has been circulating among the local medical community about the threatening phone calls, which purportedly come from a drug cartel.

The scheme is a new version of similar telephone scams and “there is nothing to indicate” it is cartel related, police spokesman Officer Javier Sambrano said. The number of reported doctor scam cases was not available.

Virtual kidnappings sprung up in Mexico several years ago feeding off fears of drug violence and abductions. It is called a “virtual kidnapping” because the victim is made to believe a loved one has been abducted when no kidnapping has taken place.

In the latest version, a person calls a doctor’s office and asks for a doctor by name. The caller claims to be from a drug cartel and that the cartel has kidnapped the doctor’s son or daughter. There is sometimes a crying child on the phone. The caller barks instructions, demands a ransom amount and the victim is ordered to wire the money to Mexico.

The victim does not realize no one has been actually kidnapped until after sending the money.

“It is important to take a minute to step back, try to think and remain calm,” Sambrano said.

The scam has been reported in other parts of the Texas-Mexico border.

Last month in South Texas, KRGV reported that a doctor in McAllen received a call claiming that his daughter had been kidnapped by the Zetas cartel. The caller demanded $50,000 or they would deliver his daughter’s head in a bag. Then, a girl crying and begging for her life was put on the phone. The doctor said that the call seemed frighteningly real for about 30 seconds before he became suspicious.

No ransom was paid. The doctor’s daughter was safe and had never been kidnapped.

In April, the FBI website warned about virtual kidnappings targeting U.S. citizens staying in hotels in Mexico.

“Callers impersonate themselves as cartel members or corrupt police officers who claim they’ve kidnapped a loved one and demand a ransom,” according to an FBI podcast. The victim is told to follow instructions in a scam that can run for three days. The FBI said that scammers are suspected to be Mexican prisoners using smuggled phones.

The FBI said the calls have warning signs — the calls come from an outside area code, the ransom is only accepted by wire transfer and the calls never come from the victim’s phone.

Sambrano said the calls are a variation of the “emergency” or “relative in Mexico” telephone scams that have previously hit the El Paso region. In those scams, a caller tricks a victim into believing they are a relative in Mexico. They usually start a call saying “Guess who it is?” They then claim to be the person that the victim guessed. The caller usually says they are coming to visit but then call to say they have been in an accident or arrested in Mexico and ask for money to be wired to save them from their predicament…

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