SAN DEIGO - Four people have been charged in a scheme that used telemarketing tactics to shake down immigrants for ransom money under the guise that loved ones had been kidnapped, according to an indictment unsealed Friday.
In reality, no one had been snatched and the callers didn't even know who they were dialing.
But in a small percentage of successes since 2007, the "virtual kidnappers" collected at least $500,000, federal investigators said.
Callers in Tijuana, Mexico, used about 30 different San Diego phone numbers to make the calls -- up to 5,000 a day -- demanding that money be wired, saying they were holding a relative who had been heading to the U.S. illegally. The four charged with wire fraud and other crimes are accused of picking up ransom payments in the San Diego area and bringing the money to Tijuana.
While authorities say the scammers were targeting immigrants, the numbers were dialed at random.
"They would just randomly run through a sequence of numbers, like 1 to 100," said Daniel Page, assistant special agent in charge of U.S. Immigration and Customs and Enforcement's Homeland Security Investigations unit in San Diego. "They're just like your professional telemarketer. They have a script. `You need to pay this money. If you don't, something's going to happen."'
Callers had no idea if their victims really had loved ones crossing the border but figured that enough calls would eventually produce a hit, Page said. When someone took the bait they usually paid between $1,000 and $3,000.
They targeted the Washington, D.C., area because it is home to large numbers of Central American immigrants whose migrant relatives are often out of contact during the long journey north.
"Virtual kidnapping" is a common scam in Latin America, especially in Mexico, Brazil and Guatemala, where high crime rates lead people to be more likely believe it when a random caller tells them a family member has been kidnapped.
Calls in Latin America are often placed by inmates in prison who use smuggled cellphones. The perpetrators often cull information from social networking websites to convince people they have kidnapped their family members.
Federal authorities in Arizona reported a spate of such calls in 2008, but this case is rare because it resulted in arrests.
The latest investigation began in 2011 with a real kidnapping, Page said. A Fresno woman wired $2,500 to a Walmart store in suburban San Diego to free a brother-in-law who was beaten and held for several days in Tijuana.
The woman got another call demanding more money, but knew her brother-in-law was free. She called Fresno police, which led to the arrests of a married couple at a 7-Eleven store after federal investigators told her to play along. Both pleaded guilty to money laundering charges. The investigation continued, and led to the arrests of four more people on Thursday.
They are Ruth Graciela Reygoza, 63, of Chula Vista; Maria del Carmen Pulido, 42, of East Los Angeles; and brothers Adrian Rocha, 25, and Juan Rocha, 23, American citizens who live in Tijuana.
Couriers are believed to get 10 percent of the money received, Page said.