Virtual Kidnapping A New Twist on a Frightening Scam

“Law enforcement agencies have been aware of virtual kidnapping fraud for at least two decades, but a recent FBI case illustrates how this frightening scam—once limited to Mexico and Southwest border states—has evolved so that U.S. residents anywhere could be potential victims.

Although virtual kidnapping takes on many forms, it is always an extortion scheme—one that tricks victims into paying a ransom to free a loved one they believe is being threatened with violence or death. Unlike traditional abductions, virtual kidnappers have not actually kidnapped anyone. Instead, through deceptions and threats, they coerce victims to pay a quick ransom before the scheme falls apart.

Between 2013 and 2015, investigators in the FBI’s Los Angeles Division were tracking virtual kidnapping calls from Mexico—almost all of these schemes originate from within Mexican prisons. The calls targeted specific individuals who were Spanish speakers. A majority of the victims were from the Los Angeles and Houston areas.

“In 2015, the calls started coming in English,” said FBI Los Angeles Special Agent Erik Arbuthnot, “and something else happened: The criminals were no longer targeting specific individuals, such as doctors or just Spanish speakers. Now they were choosing various cities and cold-calling hundreds of numbers until innocent people fell for the scheme.”

This was significant, Arbuthnot said, because the new tactic vastly increased the potential number of victims. In the case he was investigating, which became known as Operation Hotel Tango, more than 80 victims were identified in California, Minnesota, Idaho, and Texas. Collective losses were more than $87,000.

The incarcerated fraudsters—who typically bribe guards to acquire cell phones—would choose an affluent area such as Beverly Hills, California. They would search the Internet to learn the correct area code and telephone dialing prefix. Then, with nothing but time on their hands, they would start dialing numbers in sequence, trolling for victims.

When an unsuspecting person answered the phone, they would hear a female screaming, “Help me!” The screamer’s voice was likely a recording. Instinctively, the victim might blurt out his or her child’s name: “Mary, are you okay?” And then a man’s voice would say something like, “We have Mary. She’s in a truck. We are holding her hostage. You need to pay a ransom and you need to do it now or we are going to cut off her fingers.”

Most of the time, Arbuthnot said, “the intended victims quickly learned that ‘Mary’ was at home or at school, or they sensed the scam and hung up. This fraud only worked when people picked up the phone, they had a daughter, and she was not home,” he explained. “But if you are making hundreds of calls, the crime will eventually work.”

“The scammers attempt to keep victims on the phone so they can’t verify their loved ones’ whereabouts or contact law enforcement. The callers are always in a hurry, and the ransom demand is usually a wire payment to Mexico of $2,000 or less, because there are legal restrictions for wiring larger amounts across the border.

Although victims were typically instructed to wire ransom payments, two individuals in Houston were coerced into paying larger amounts—totaling approximately $28,000—that could not be wired. The victims were directed to make money drops, and they believed they were being watched as they were directed to the assigned location. When the drops were made—in specified trash cans—a Houston woman, 34-year-old Yanette Rodriguez Acosta, was waiting to pick up the ransom money. After taking her portion of the payment, Acosta wired the rest in small amounts to several individuals in Mexico to transfer to the Mexican prisoner believed to be running the virtual kidnapping scheme.

Acosta was taken into custody for her involvement in the scam, and in July 2017, a federal grand jury in Houston returned a 10-count indictment against her. Among the charges were wire fraud and money laundering.

Arbuthnot noted that the Mexican prisoners who carry out virtual kidnappings use the ransom money to pay bribes and to make their lives behind bars easier. “And sometimes they use the money to buy their way out of jail. That’s the ultimate goal.”

He added that virtual kidnapping cases are difficult to investigate and prosecute because almost all of the subjects are in Mexico, and the money is wired out of the country and can be difficult to trace. The charges against Acosta represent the first federal indictment in a virtual kidnapping case. In addition, many victims do not report the crime, either because they are embarrassed, afraid, or because they don’t consider the financial loss to be significant.

Regardless, Arbuthnot said, “victims of virtual kidnapping scams are traumatized by these events, because at the time, they believe that a loved one has been kidnapped and is in real danger.”

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Securitas Mobile Officer Marcus Johnson receives Ralph Day Security of the Year award

“On September 24 at the 63rd ASIS International Annual Seminar and Exhibits in Dallas, TX, Securitas Mobile Officer Marcus Johnson was the honored recipient of Ralph Day Security of the Year award.

In his nine years with Securitas, Johnson has been recognized for consistent superior performance and exceeding expectations in increasingly responsible positions.

Now a Mobile Guarding Supervisor in the Washington D.C. Metro Area, Johnson continues to be an outstanding example of Securitas’ core values of Integrity, Vigilance and Helpfulness.

Johnson was selected for the Ralph Day Award in recognition of his heroic actions while on patrol in Alexandria, VA on July 22, 2016. He came to the aid of a police officer who was being assaulted and jeopardized his own safety to intervene. As a result of his actions, the police officer was saved from grievous bodily harm and possibly death, but Johnson was seriously injured.

As part of the award, Johnson and his spouse were invited to attend the 2017 ASIS Seminar as guests of the Security Services Council. During the award ceremony, he was presented a plaque and a monetary award. His selfless response to this incident also earned him a letter of commendation from the Alexandria, VA Chief of Police and the 2016 Private Security Officer of the Year award from his local ASIS chapter.

“We sincerely appreciate the ASIS International Security Services Council for recognizing the outstanding acts of officers in our industry. We would also like to thank the Alexandria Police Department for its recognition and support of Marcus since the incident,” said Securitas Mobile Guarding Division President Tim Keller, CPP. “All of us at Securitas are extremely proud and appreciative of Marcus, not only for his bravery and the selfless actions that are believed to have saved a police officer’s life, but also for the outstanding dedication and professionalism he demonstrates every day.”

ASIS International is the leading organization for security professionals worldwide. It is dedicated to increasing the effectiveness and productivity of security professionals by developing educational programs and materials that address broad security interests. The ASIS International Security Services Council seeks to facilitate the exchange of best practices to raise the standards and increase productivity of professional security services, as well as to increase awareness of its role in protecting people, property and information. Each year it honors one security officer in the United States with the Ralph Day Security Officer of the Year Award.”

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Ranger Guard app lets businesses order security guards like Uber

“You can order just about anything from your phone these days, and that now includes security guards.

Ranger Guard works a lot like a ride sharing app, and users say it’s changed the way they protect their businesses.

During Harvey’s flooding, many business owners had to close up shop due to flood damage. That left many businesses with no one to watch out for them.

“Definitely don’t recommend that,” says Jonah Nathan, owner of Ranger Guard and Investigations.

His company offers the app, which works like a ride sharing service except instead of cars, you’re summoning security guards.

“Just ordering your security service just like you do your Uber. Just for the amount of time you need it,” Nathan said.

It doesn’t require a contract and businesses can request armed or unarmed guards to perform specific tasks– like confronting a specious person.

Nathan says many of the calls his guards are sent to involve businesses dealing with homeless people.

“Most homeless people are nonviolent,” Nathan said. “They just want to sit there in peace.”

But he says during Harvey’s flooding, the demand shifted. Many businesses used the app to protect the properties they had to flee.

He hopes once those businesses are back up and running, they’ll continue with the service.

The app is intended for businesses and it not available for residential use.”

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Woman arrested on suspicion of battery, hate crime against security officer

“Davis police arrested a 24-year-old woman Thursday night following an alleged assault that initially has been classified as a hate crime.
Lt. Paul Doroshov said officers responded shortly before midnight to Red 88 Noodle Bar, 223 G St., to investigate a report of an intoxicated woman assaulting a security employee.

“Security personnel told officers the suspect made comments directed toward the officer’s race,” which is African-American, Doroshov said. “The suspect grabbed the victim by the face, and attempted to strike her. The suspect was overpowered by security staff and subsequently arrested.”

Jessica Garza-Herrera was booked into the Yolo County Jail on battery and hate-crime charges, though Doroshov said detectives will conduct further investigation into whether race was a motivating factor in the incident.”

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Fake FEMA inspectors spotted in Houston neighborhoods

HOUSTON - Fake FEMA inspectors have been spotted in a couple of Houston neighborhoods. But they didn’t do their research very well.

The neighborhoods they’ve hit did not even flood. That was the first red flag when a man knocked on Kathy Horner’s front door.

“And he identified himself as a FEMA inspector,” said Horner.

She said the man even looked the part.

“He did have a very official looking badge,” said Horner.

But she knew her family never filed a claim for flood damage.Therefore, she never opened the door.

She also took a photo of the man’s white sedan before he left the neighborhood.

“I set the alarm and called the constable,” said Horner.

Horner posted a warning on the NextDoor app under the heading “FEMA Inspector Impersonator.”

Her story mirrors a post from a homeowner on 24th Street titled “Beware of supposed FEMA inspector.” The man in that case bolted when confronted with a camera.

“These are real bottom feeders,” said neighbor Michael Silverman.

He hates to think people would fall for such a scam, especially in areas unaffected by the flood.

“So any FEMA workers that would come around here would be very suspicious,” said Silverman. “And I would think they would be looking to take advantage of some people.”

According to FEMA, you should always ask to see an inspector’s badge up close. A FEMA shirt or jacket does not make them legitimate.

Another very important reminder is that inspectors never show up unannounced. They have no reason to be at a home if the owner did not file a claim or register for disaster assistance.

“Just be careful about who you talk to,” said Horner. “Don’t let anybody in your home.”

And be watchful of warnings from people who’ve encountered potential imposters.

Here’s a template of a federal ID that official inspectors will have. They may also say “contractor” on the bottom.


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Albuquerque Fingerprint Backlog Increases to 6,000 Cases

“Three Albuquerque Police Department forensic scientists have a daunting task – closely examine and match thousands of collected fingerprints to suspects in order to help solve crimes.

At the Albuquerque Metropolitan Forensics Science Center, 6,000 latent fingerprint packets are waiting to be processed.

The backlog has increased 20-fold since 2014, according to APD data. In 2014, there were five forensic scientists and approximately 300 backlogged cases. Back then, prints took one to two months to process.

Now, latent fingerprints can wait anywhere from one week to 16 months to be processed depending on the Bernalillo County Case Management Order.

The CMO was created to clear up the Bernalillo County District Court case backlog and to prevent pretrial detainees from waiting in jail for months for their cases to be tried.

Instead, Bernalillo County District Attorney Raul Torrez has said that the CMO has unintentionally put an undue burden on the public because defendants – sometimes repeat offenders – are often released with no bond before their trial.

Though the Albuquerque City Council approved funding to train and employ civilians to be property crime scene specialists in order to help police, the rate at which the civilian specialists have been collecting prints and dropping them off at the metro lab is greatly outpacing its ability to process them.

“We’ve increased our staff to get reports done and collect the evidence, but we haven’t been as proactive in increasing the lab staff to do the backend work,” APD Commander Jeff McDonald said.

‘I GUESS THEY DON’T CATCH ANYBODY’

Criminals have targeted Aragon’s Lawn and Wood Center in northeast Albuquerque more than 30 times over the past decade, according to the owners. It’s gotten to the point where Owner Richard Aragon has slept at his business armed.

The marine veteran was a sniper in the Vietnam War.

“They’re all fully loaded,” Aragon said.

That isn’t the extent of the precautions he has taken. The lawnmower business is surrounded by motion detector lighting, surveillance cameras and concertina wire.

“We can catch them with the infrared (cameras) and we can get good images at night. Some of the pictures that we’ve taken with our surveillance show us the same guy,” he said.

Aragon and his wife, Kathy, are just two of the thousands of property crime victims in the city waiting for justice.

“Nothing that we know of, or at least they don’t tell us anything and I guess they don’t catch anybody,” Kathy Aragon said.

McDonald has a message for the Aragons and others in their situation.

“Be patient. We’re trying,” he said. “We’re trying to get everybody’s cases solved.”

McDonald said there are currently plans to hire two more forensic scientists. Two retired in 2015, but were never replaced.

Still, the hiring process could take anywhere from two to four months. If the applicant is a recent college graduate with limited experience, he or she will have to be trained for a year.

“I joined the police department to help people,” McDonald said. “(It’s) just not at the fastest rate I’d like.”

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Woman posed as lawyer, duped immigrants and filed petitions

“A Lynwood woman who allegedly stole the identity and bar license number of an attorney is expected to face a federal judge today on charges she filed immigration petitions on behalf of foreign nationals who believed she was a legitimate lawyer.

Jessica Godoy Ramos, 36, was arrested late Wednesday pursuant to a criminal complaint that charges her with mail fraud and aggravated identity theft, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

According to the criminal complaint, Ramos accepted thousands of dollars from several dozen aliens who sought her services in an attempt to obtain legal status in the United States. The complaint affidavit alleges that Ramos filed immigration petitions on the behalf of some aliens, but in other cases she never performed any services for her clients.

In at least one instance, Ramos created counterfeit immigration parole documents which a client was able to use to enter the United States, the government alleges.

The complaint alleges that Ramos’ clients initially believed she was a legitimate immigration attorney, but several became suspicious when Ramos directed them to appear at U.S. Citizenship and
Immigration Services offices for interviews — but they did not have any scheduled appointments.

“The crimes alleged in this case victimized dozens of immigrants who were attempting to realize the American dream by paying someone they thought was a lawyer,” said acting U.S. Attorney

Sandra R. Brown. “This type of scam, which unfortunately targets new immigrants too often, undermines our immigration system and can shatter dreams of obtaining legal status to remain in the United States.”

If convicted, Ramos would face up to 20 years in federal prison for the mail fraud count and a mandatory consecutive sentence of two years for the aggravated identity theft charge.

“Unscrupulous immigration practitioners not only exploit the trust of their often-unwitting victims, but by filing fraudulent immigration applications they create a security vulnerability and potentially rob deserving immigrants of benefits they rightfully deserve,” said Joseph Macias, special agent in charge for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security
Investigations in Los Angeles.

Federal authorities began investigating Ramos in February after the HSI- led Document and Benefit Fraud Task Force received a tip from USCIS about five of Ramos’ clients who went to USCIS offices in downtown Los Angeles expecting to pick up their non-existent “green cards.”

“People who wish to file for benefits with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services have a right to proper representation,” said USCIS Los Angeles District Director Donna Campagnolo. “This
case is a good example of all agencies involved working together to ensure that the integrity of the program is preserved and individuals are able to retain proper representation to aide them through the process.”

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Clifton NJ worker stole dead man’s Social Security money

“CLIFTON NJ Sept 29 2017 -A city employee who worked at senior citizen’s center was arrested Wednesday on charges she used a dead man’s debit card to withdraw Social Security funds from his bank account.

Jacklyn Delillo, 31, is charged with theft by deception and identity theft, Passaic County Prosecutor Camelia M. Valdes said in a statement.

Delillo worked at the Clifton Senior Citizens Center, which is run by city government. It was at the center where she befriended an elderly man, Valdes said.

“When the elderly individual died, Social Security checks continued to be deposited into the individual’s bank account,” Valdes said.

“It is alleged that Ms. Delillo used the decedent’s debit card to make purchases after his death, utilizing Social Security funds,” Valdes said.

Delillo stole about $2,500, the prosecutor alleged.

Delillo salary is $21,726 and has worked for the city for about a year, according to state pension records.

Local authorities were assisted in the investigation by the Social Security Administration Inspector General’s Office, Valdes said.

After her arrest, Delillo was released on a summons to appear in court on Oct. 20, the prosecutor said.”

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TSA deploys hundreds of staff to assist with hurricane relief efforts

“The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has deployed more than 1,100 members of its workforce to help with hurricane relief efforts in some of the hardest-hit areas.

About 500 employees were dispatched to assist with screening operations at impacted airports, while another 660 TSA workers volunteered to serve on the Department of Homeland Security’s “Surge

Capacity Force” to help deliver aid directly to storm survivors.

At Cyril King Airport in St. Thomas, which was severely damaged by Hurricane Irma, the TSA has had to use alternative screening methods — such as canine teams and hand-held metal detectors — to screen passengers for charter flights.

And in San Juan, Puerto Rico, the airport was so crippled by Hurricane Maria that Federal Aviation Administration technicians had to use chainsaws to clear a path in order to reach radar sites and restore the radar technology.

“I am proud and humbled by the spirit and dedication to service exhibited by the TSA workforce. Several TSA officers even walked miles from their homes in St. Thomas to reach the airport,” said TSA Administrator David Pekoske in a statement.

“Make no mistake, TSA stands ready to help reopen impacted airports following Hurricane Maria, and I am very gratified by the continued commitment to mission demonstrated by TSA employees across the country,” he said.

The TSA volunteers came from 20 airports around the country. The agency vowed to continue using local personnel and volunteers to help airports and airlines recover from the disaster.
The Hill”

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Walmart security officers honored by St Paul Police

“It was a routine day for Walmart security officers Chao Vang and Dan Miller until a man in a winter coat slipped out the door with a pair of pants and some medical supplies.

Soon, along with St. Paul police officer Tom Reis, they were embroiled in a life-or-death struggle with the shoplifter. The man was sprawled across the ground flailing his limbs, a 6-inch knife in his right hand.

“I was on my knees holding [the man] down,” Reis recently recalled. “He would’ve been in the perfect position to get my neck … It is a possibility I wouldn’t even be here” were it not for Vang and Miller.

Both hands clamped down on the man’s right wrist, Reis yelled for Vang and Miller to help until other St. Paul officers could arrive. Vang and Miller recently received the police chief’s life saving award for their actions during the Dec. 22, 2016, incident. One other civilian and two officers also received the award for their actions in other cases.

“He asked for help, so I just jumped in,” Vang said.

Reis was working off-duty at the Midway store on University Avenue when he spotted the shoplifter and stopped him. Unbeknown to the officers at the time, the man had just allegedly violated a harassment restraining order, sliced another man several times with the knife and was apparently seeking a change of clothes and first aid at Walmart.

Reis walked the man into the back of the store with Vang and Miller in tow. When Reis gave him a pat down, he discovered the knife stashed in a coat pocket. “Don’t do anything stupid,” Reis told the man.

But the man pulled away, brandished the knife and refused to drop it, according to Reis and court documents. Reis and the man struggled to the ground, with the officer warning the man that he would use deadly force if necessary. That’s when Reis called for Vang and Miller.

Miller yelled for a store worker to call 911 and held down the man’s back and left arm. Vang grabbed onto his legs.

“The guy said, ‘I’m not going to give up my knife,’ ” Vang recalled. “And, ‘I’m going to stab you if I have to.’ ”
The man thrashed.

“I’m going to get you,” the man said, according to Reis.

“I had to put all my body into it,” Vang said.

The struggle continued despite the pile-on, and at some point, Reis sustained a small cut to his right hand that remains scarred today. He can’t be sure if it was the knife or something else that nicked him, but he knows he was uncomfortably close to an officer’s worst nightmare — being killed on the job or killing someone on the job to save his own life. Backup officers arrived before any more harm could be done.

“I’m grateful they stepped in and helped me,” Reis said of Vang and Miller. “In the big picture of things, no one got hurt, which I think is a small miracle.”

The 31-year-old man, a Minneapolis resident, was charged with three felonies in the incident at Walmart and the earlier assault on a man. Charges were later dropped when he was found mentally incompetent to stand trial.

Venancio Arellando-O’Campo was also recognized for stopping to help an elderly man with dementia who had wandered away from a field trip to Como Zoo on a cold February day.
Arellando-O’Campo was driving when he saw the man walking along Hwy. 36 dressed only in a sweatshirt, said Police Chief Todd Axtell. Concerned by the unusual sight, he pulled over, spoke to the man, who had limited communication skills, and took him to McDonald’s when he said he was hungry.

“This is really a classic definition of being a good Samaritan,” Axtell said.

The man had been missing for hours when Arellando-O’Campo found him.

“I feel glad to help somebody …,” Arellando-O’Campo said.

Officers Jeff Boyle and Santiago Rodriguez were honored for performing CPR on an unconscious man who had fallen to the ground at a gas station during a heroin overdose.

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