More than 80 people, many in Southern California, have been targeted by scammers claiming to have kidnapped the victims’ loved ones in a series of crimes that authorities call “virtual kidnapping for ransom schemes.”
At an afternoon news conference Tuesday, Los Angeles police and federal investigators announced that a 34-year-old Texas woman has been arrested and charged in connection with a scheme that targeted victims in four states.
Yanette Rodriguez Acosta was taken into custody in Houston last week and has been charged in a 10-count federal indictment with conspiracy, wire fraud and money laundering, FBI Acting Special Agent in Charge Gene Kowel said.
It's the first prosecution of its kind.
Acosta allegedly gathered ransom money from victims, took a cut and then sent the rest to unidentified co-conspirators in Mexico. She is also accused of recruiting others to work with her.
Those targeted were contacted over the phone by schemers who attempted to manipulate the victims into believing their loved ones had been kidnapped – in an attempt to quickly extort ransom payments. Sometimes the victims heard screaming in the background of the calls.
“Victims were told they must pay to secure the release of their kidnapped child," Kowel said. "Victims were told their daughters had been kidnapped because they had witnessed a crime and that their fingers would be cut off should the parents not pay a ransom.”
Federal investigators began looking into the crimes in 2013, and in 2015 they started a task force with Los Angeles-area police. "Operation Hotel Tango" found more than 80 victims in California, Texas, Idaho and Minnesota, with losses of $74,000.
Typically, victims were told to wire the ransom money to specific individuals in Mexico, but two victims in Texas were told to drop money at specific locations in the Houston area, where Acosta allegedly picked up the cash, according to a Justice Department news release.
One victim, a Westside LAPD traffic sergeant, recounted his experience to reporters on Tuesday. He said he was driving down the 405 Freeway when he got a call from a number he didn't recognize.
"There was a woman ... screaming, 'Daddy, daddy, help me,'" said the sergeant, who gave his name only as Smith. "I didn't recognize the voice ... so I tried to explain to her that she needed to call 911."
Then another voice came on the line, saying Smith needed to transfer money to get his daughter returned.
"They specifically threatened to put a bullet in the back of my child's head," Smith said.
He said he saw some Torrance police officers, who were able to confirm his children were safe in school. The call lasted a little over an hour, Smith said.
Another victim at the news conference said she was on the phone with schemers for hours, and she thinks they had a "voice imprint" of her daughter. They asked how much money she had on hand, and they told her where to go to get cash, using local L.A. street names.
"This is not a victimless crime," the woman said. "I'm surprised I didn't have a stroke."
Complaints about such schemes have been made nationwide, the FBI said.
The local pattern began with calls made from Mexican phone numbers to the 310 area code, Los Angeles Police Department Capt. William Hayes said. The schemers generally pick an area code and prefix at random and begin making calls, Hayes said.
Federal authorities said Acosta's case marks the first time a defendant has been charged in federal court over virtual kidnapping allegations.
Kowel said investigators can't "arrest or charge our way out of this problem." Educating the public about the prevalence of the scheme – and how to properly respond – is key, he said.
If you receive such a call, contact your relative immediately to ensure his or her safety and then call the FBI or local police, Kowel said.
Acosta, who also goes by Yanette Patino, faces up to 20 years in federal prison if convicted.
She was indicted by a federal grand jury in Houston on July 18.