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FBI in Arkansas investigating scam targeting Spanish speakers

Officials say the scheme tricks victims into paying a ransom to “free” a loved one they claim has been kidnapped.

ARKANSAS, USA — The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) - Little Rock are investigating a virtual kidnapping scam targeting Spanish-speaking individuals in Arkansas.

According to officials, the scheme tricks victims over the phone into paying money to “free” a loved one they claim has been kidnapped, when in fact, the scammers have not kidnapped anyone. 

The scammer uses "deceptions and threats" to coerce individuals to quickly pay the ransom before the scheme is discovered, according to the FBI. On average, families send thousands of dollars to criminals before contacting law enforcement. 

“Virtual kidnappings depend on speed, fear, and the expectation that victims won’t contact law enforcement,” said FBI Little Rock Special Agent in Charge James A. Dawson. “Scammers know they only have a limited time to receive a ransom before their plot unravels. We want potential victims to contact the FBI immediately so we can identify and disrupt these criminal enterprises.” 

Over the past several months, FBI offices across the United States have seen numerous calls originating out of Central America and Mexico targeting specific area codes in different states. 

“They use realistic sounding yells and sounds of pain, or the sounds of torture in the background of these calls to make it seem to the family like their loved one is truly under duress,” said Connor Hagan.

During their investigation, The FBI determined that criminals are scanning social media accounts for people traveling out of the country. These scammers then call the traveler's loved ones, stating that the traveler is in danger or has been kidnapped. The criminals then request victims to send money as soon as possible. If you get this type of call, whether you think it’s an extortion scheme or a legitimate international kidnapping, contact the FBI immediately. 

The FBI suggests looking out for the following warning signs to avoid becoming a victim of this scam:

  • Scammers may call multiple times in an effort to speak with their targeted victims
  • Scammers will go to great lengths to keep you on the phone
  • Virtual kidnappers play recorded screams in the background to make the call sound more realistic
  • Criminals will try to prevent you from calling or locating the “kidnapped” victim
  • Ransom money is only accepted via wire transfer service

If you happen to receive a call that appears to be a scam, use the following steps to counter the scheme:

  • Stay calm and avoid sharing information about you or your family during the call
  • Request to speak to the victim directly; ask for “proof of life.” 
  • Listen carefully to the voice of the kidnapped victim and ask questions only the victim would know
  • Request the kidnapped victim call back from their personal cell phone 
  • Attempt to contact the victim via their legitimate social media accounts
  • Don’t agree to pay a ransom and never give out any financial information

According to a press release from FBI Little Rock, investigators believe numerous virtual kidnappings remain unreported as many Spanish-speaking Arkansans are hesitant to contact law enforcement due to concerns about their immigration status. The FBI ensures that its investigators are only working to stop the scams from occurring. 

FBI officials say they will continue to work with state, federal, and international law enforcement partners to locate and arrest the criminals responsible for these scams. 

If you happen to encounter or fall victim to this particular scam, you can report it to the FBI at www.ic3.gov or by calling 1-800-CALL-FBI. 

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