Southern California families were targeted in a multi-state "virtual kidnapping" scheme that coerced victims to pay thousands of dollars in ransom fees, authorities said.
A Houston woman is accused of the scheme that convinced victims to pay ransoms in California, Texas and Idaho, according to federal authorities. More than 80 victims, involving 39 families, were targeted in the scheme - including many in Los Angeles and Beverly Hills.
Officials with the FBI's Southern California office, the Los Angeles Police Department and the Beverly Hills Police Department discussed the case at a press conference Tuesday afternoon.
The FBI and LAPD say they started noticing an increase in these cases starting in 2015. From 2015 to May 2017, there were 252 incidents in the Los Angeles area alone and victims wired $114,000 to the scammers.
Typically the scam involves suspects calling people at random and going to great lengths to convince them they have their loved one and threatening to kill or take their fingers unless they send money.
"They might have somebody in the background screaming to imitate their child," said LAPD Capt. William Hayes. "Then they would talk about taking fingers, killing them. It doesn't take much like that if you're a parent to know that you'll want to do anything to protect them."
Yanette Rodriguez Acosta, 34, was arrested last week after being indicted on 10 counts of fraud charges. She also goes by the name Yanette Patino.
"Virtual kidnappings" are schemes that involve calls or messages to victims claiming a relative has been kidnapped, according to Christina Garza with the FBI's Houston Office. The caller demands wire transfers or cash drops of ransom payments.
"It's an extremely scary situation because you're going to believe at some point that somebody has your loved one," Garza said. "There have been people who pay thousands and thousands of dollars for ransom for individuals who weren't ever kidnapped."
That's the type of scheme that Acosta is accused of being involved with. A federal grand jury indicted her last week.
She's accused being involved with accomplices in Mexico and contacting 39 families in Texas, California and Idaho and convincing them their loved ones were kidnapped.
One victim was allegedly told their loved one's fingers would be cut off if they didn't pay up, according to the indictments.
"They're going to try to get you scared. They're going to try press you, try to get you act very quickly. They're going to be very aggressive, so stay calm," Garza said.
The indictment alleges two families from The Woodlands, Texas were told to drop cash off in Houston for Acosta to pick up; other victims were allegedly told to wire money to Mexico.
Investigators said if you get a call like this to hang up and get a hold of your supposedly missing loved one. Then, call the FBI.
They also suggest being mindful of what you post online.
"We put so much information in our social media profiles about who are we related to, where we work, where we go to school. We check into locations. We tell people exactly where you are and who you're with," Garza said. "We have to be mindful of what we're putting out there."