A vacation in Mexico turned into a living nightmare for a Central Coast family and now that family is sharing their story to keep others from becoming victims of an extortion that’s on the rise.
It’s called a virtual kidnapping and the FBI continues to warn U.S. residents about this frightening over-the-phone scam that has cost hundreds of people thousands of dollars.
In the latest case to hit the Central Coast, Watsonville Police Detectives worked alongside the FBI to track down the family in Guadalajara.
Here’s everything you need to know before traveling internationally:
“We went to Puerto Vallarta it was fun. The boys swim in the pool, in the water, in the beach; it was really good and fun. After that, we went to Guadalajara and so, everything changed,” explained a mother of two who has asked that we protect her identity. For the purpose of this story, we will refer to the mother as Jane.
The family of four never expected that a late-night phone call at a Guadalajara hotel would drastically change their lives, becoming victims of an all too common scam known as a virtual kidnapping.
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“In virtual kidnappings, the criminals don’t take the victim. They never see each other face-to-face. Everything is done over the phone,” explained Watsonville Police Detective Gustavo Zamora. “These scammers they do targeted calls. They convince the people that they’re being kidnapped and then they ask for a ransom.”
The over-the-phone threats are extremely violent and so intimidating that these fraudsters gain full cooperation from victims and victims’ families. “He said, ‘we’re going over there and get in the room and kill you all you guys or cut you up,” said Jane. “It was hard, so we did exactly what they want.”
Det. Zamora said that the family was forced to give up their relatives’ contact information, purchase a pre-paid phone and instructed to stay off all personal phone, making it nearly impossible for anyone to get ahold of them.
“They want money and they want it fast before their victims and the families realize that it’s a scam,” said Det. Zamora. “In this case, the virtual kidnappers called the (victims’) family here in Watsonville multiple times and demanded money. They threatened to kill the family and their children if they didn’t pay the $50,000 ransom.”
The victims’ family did the right thing and came to the Watsonville Police Department. Our detectives, as well as the FBI, were called in. And after investigating for nearly 30 hours, a Mexican anti-kidnapping team found the family cooped up in the hotel room.
“They show me the badge and told me, ‘Oh you’re safe, just hang up the phone. Don’t listen to them. This is over.’ I realized that we were safe. I cried, I start crying a lot,” said Jane.
The FBI suspected it was dealing with a virtual kidnapping and confirmed it as soon as agents tracked the caller’s phone to a Mexican prison.
“The FBI has found that many of these calls originate from the inside of Mexican prisons. These people have all the time in the world to make these calls using smuggled phones while working with others on the outside," explained Det. Zamora. “If you ever get a call like this, hang up, do not engage, never give them any personal information and call law enforcement right away."
Since returning to the Central Coast, the family has been receiving victim’s services from the FBI to overcome this traumatic experience.
They say it’s a vacation they’ll never forget and one they hope others will learn from.
“Be safe, to tell where you’re going, where you’re at; the communication with your family. If you’re going to a simple store, a simple hotel, wherever you go, just give the information to your family and be safe," said Jane.
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