A Texas woman was arrested and charged Thursday for her alleged involvement in a virtual kidnapping and ransom ring, wherein parents were tricked into believing their children were in grave trouble and they had to pay up to save them.
It would start with a phone call from a Mexican phone number, according to a grand jury indictment. The person on the other end of the line would tell parents that their child had witnessed a murder, or “saw something they shouldn’t have.” If the parents didn’t pay up, the callers said, their child’s fingers would be cut off. Or the child wouldn’t be returned to them at all. (Luckily, no children were actually kidnapped, authorities say, and it’s unclear how the group knew the kids would be away from their parents at the time of the call.)
Then came the request for cash: The parents needed to wire money to Mexico or do a physical money drop.
That’s where Yanette Rodriguez Acosta came in, according to an indictment from a federal grand jury in Houston.
The 34-year-old Texan would allegedly pick up the money, take her portion of the ransom, and then wire the rest of the money to co-conspirators in Mexico. She is being charged with counts of conspiracy to commit money laundering, conspiracy to commit wire fraud, and conspiracy to launder money, each of which could land Acosta in up to 20 years of prision. All in all, investigators found, the fraudsters targeted 39 different families in Texas, California, and Idaho.
The indictment also alleges that Acosta recruited individuals to send thousands of dollars in ransom money by wire transfers to co-conspirators in Mexico. Acosta is accused of sending $17,000 obtained by wire fraud, on eight different occasions.
Conspirators allegedly demanded sums totalling thousands of dollars in exchange for victims’ children. Two victims paid a total of $28,000 to conspirators, according to the indictment.
“These types of cases are tragic,” Acting U.S. Attorney Abe Martinez said in a press release. “It’s not the amount of money involved; it’s the fact that these people are tricked into believing their loved ones are in danger and the horror and helplessness they feel as they scramble to secure what they think is their release. It is important for people to know about these scams and to be cautious and mindful when getting these types of calls.”
The investigation spanned multiple agencies including the FBI, IRS, Los Angeles and Beverly Hills Police Departments, Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations in Los Angeles.
The Daily Beast was not able to reach Acosta or her representatives by press time for comment on the allegations.