Fredericksburg Family Victims Of 'Virtual Kidnapping' | Texas Public Radio

Fredericksburg Family Victims Of 'Virtual Kidnapping'

Nov 19, 2018

It's Sunday, Nov. 4. Fredericksburg's Hannah Stone had attended church and had breakfast with her two kids, before dropping off her 14-year-old daughter Lauren to wait for a couple of friends on Main Street.

"The last thing I saw was her walking 10, 15 feet into the ice cream shop," she said.

Stone hadn't driven two blocks when her phone rang. It was a strange number, but she knew her daughter's cell phone was dead so she picked it up.

She heard a girl scream "mom" and the sounds of a struggle.

"I said 'Baby, Lauren, are you ok?' ” Stone said. “Then a male voice came on and said, 'We have your daughter. We took your daughter.' “

The man said they were Mexican mafia, that she was being watched and that he wanted $5,000 to let her go.

"My heart just stopped,” Stone said. “My legs went numb, as I'm driving. I stop the car and went to pull over."

The next hour “was hell,” Stone said. The man, who insisted on being called sir, kept her on the phone, insisting that she talk to no one. He then coached her on how to wire money to multiple accounts.

She dropped off her son at home before heading to H-E-B to wire the money. Her husband was there and while she covered the receiver of the phone she desperately described the situation and told him to contact the police.

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What she didn't know was that her daughter wasn't in any danger. The whole thing was a scam the FBI call 'virtual kidnapping,' and it’s been around for more than 10 years.

"In a lot of cases they will use actors or children and they are very authentic," said Michelle Lee, FBI special agent in charge of media.

They don't have exact numbers because this is reported to local police along with other fraud scams and it is underreported because people are embarrassed when they find out its a scam, Lee said. Many attribute the scam to organized crime in Mexico.

"Most of the schemes we have seen are focused on volume,” she said. “They're wanting to make as many phone calls as possible hoping to find a victim."

Four years ago, scammers started targeting doctors in South Texas, Lee said. The FBI and Texas Medical Association sent out warnings about the calls. In recent years, the FBI said they started targeting wealthy zip codes, like Fredericksburg.

Last year, Mexican investigative journalists, using hidden cameras, revealed some of these calls are being made from inside Mexican prisons as guards look on.

State troopers, doctors and lawyers have been taken in by these scams because the powerful fear of losing a child.

"You start focusing on what do I need to do in this very moment to make sure they are safe and logic goes out the window," Lee said.

Because many of these scams occur overseas they are hard to combat, but Lee said one of the cases she had seen prosecuted was against 35-year-old Houston resident Yanette Rodriguez Acosta.

Acosta, working with someone in Mexico, conned a Woodland's father out of $15,000. According to court records, Acosta’s unindicted co-conspirator threatened to cut off his daughter’s fingers if he didn't comply.

Acosta was arrested for wiring and recruiting others to wire, small amounts of money to multiple Mexican accounts after picking up money from a Houston drop-off point. She pled guilty in September and was sentenced to more than seven years in prison.

For Stone, she was relieved when she found out her daughter was OK, embarrassed and angry but also fortunate. Her husband connected with Fredericksburg police who--suspecting a con-- stopped the wire transfer.  Since then she has been upset she didn't know about this kind of a scam.

“I knew I was going to be talking to a newspaper or someone because other parents were going to know,” she said.

Paul Flahive can be reached at paul@tpr.org or on Twitter @paulflahive