Sara was at home in Los Angeles, working, when she got a call around 2 p.m. from an unknown number.
“The first thing I heard was a woman screaming. Terrified screaming,” Sara recalls. “I was like, ‘Calm down, calm down, I can’t understand you.’ And then I said one of my daughter’s names.”
Little did Sara know she had walked right into the trap of an international scam, one that has ensnared thousands of Californians.
According to the FBI, inmates in Mexico City prisons are cold-calling U.S. numbers, pretending to have kidnapped the person’s daughter or son and demanding thousands of dollars in exchange for their safe return.
Sara’s story is typical: After calling out the name of her daughter, a man immediately got on the line and told Sara her daughter had been kidnapped. He told Sara if she wanted her daughter back, she had to do exactly what he said. We have changed Sara’s name because of her concerns about her safety.
“It never entered that my mind that it wasn’t real. I was two steps away from a panic attack,” she said. The men on the other end of the line “were screaming at me ‘Is this all [my daughter] is worth, is this all the money I can get?’ ”
Los Angeles FBI agent Erik Arbuthnot said the calls took off in 2015.
“We are suddenly inundated with not a couple of cases a month. Now we are getting thousands of phone calls all over the United States,” he said.
Arbuthnot said the callers have targeted wealthy areas codes like Beverly Hills and Santa Barbara. They speak English, often because they lived in the United States for some period of time.
“The victims are so traumatized because they really believe that they heard their daughter or their son,” Arbuthnot said.
The alleged kidnappers tell the victims their daughter or son will be killed if they call the police. All the while, they keep the victim on the phone and instruct them step by step on how and where to wire thousands of dollars to Mexico. Sometimes, as in Sara’s case, the alleged kidnappers also instruct the victims to purchase electronics at stores like Best Buy and drop them off at specific locations.
This kind of scheme -- while relatively new in the U.S. -- is not uncommon in Mexico.
Willy Zuniga, who is in charge of prosecuting kidnappings and extortion in Mexico City, said whenever there is crying and claims of immediate danger, it’s not a real kidnapping.
He said the callers work in small groups, but it’s possible bigger cartels play a role.
“We cannot dismiss that is a possibility,” he said.
Mexican and American law enforcement stress they are collaborating, but they have had limited success in prosecuting the scammers -- and there are extradition issues.
Just two people have been indicted for extortion calls made to the U.S.: a prison inmate in Mexico City and his co-conspirator, an American woman in Houston who picked up ransom money. Arbuthnot said just these two ensnared around 50 Californians. They face up to 10 years in prison.
For Sara, the nightmare lasted nearly eight hours. Making matters worse, while the alleged kidnappers had her on the phone, she received a text message from her daughter asking “did you pay it?” Her daughter was referring to her college bill; Sara thought she was referring to the ransom demand.
Sara kept trying to text her daughter to find out where she was but the texts didn’t go through. The ordeal ended when her daughter finally called to check in. By that time, Sara had wired thousands of dollars to Mexico. Her case remains open.
“They caught my weakness, which is my kids. And they were very, very good at it,” she said.
The FBI, meanwhile, has a new campaign: Operation Hang Up. The idea being, if you get a call from an unknown number with a crying person on the other end, hang up the phone and alert the FBI.