The FBI is investigating how scammers obtained confidential information to defraud migrant children's families of thousands of dollars by telling them they needed to pay a fee to get their children out of federal custody.
The investigation, which began July 18 in San Antonio, has uncovered evidence of similar scams in a dozen states, including California. The FBI issued a warning about the scams this week as the investigation broadened.
A spokeswoman for the FBI in Los Angeles said workers in that office were assisting their Texas colleagues. "We haven't seen complaints to any degree here," spokeswoman Laura Eimiller said. "We're certainly monitoring the situation."
Scammers called relatives of children who had crossed the border unaccompanied and were housed at massive new shelters run by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio and Ft. Sill, Okla., according to FBI spokeswoman Michelle Lee in San Antonio. Some scammers even used the phone number of a San Antonio business to appear more trustworthy, she said.
The FBI has not received reports of scammers targeting relatives of children housed at the shelter at Port Hueneme in Ventura County, Lee said.
Lawmakers and immigrant advocates were outraged by the scam and the apparent security breach.
"While they are in our custody, these children are our responsibility," U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Texas Democrat from the Rio Grande Valley, said in an email. "Not only is it our responsibility to see to their care and protection physically, but also the protection of their privacy and their families' privacy."
The two shelters that are the primary focus of the investigation have held more than 4,500 youths since they opened in recent months, mostly Central Americans who crossed into the U.S. through the Rio Grande Valley.
More than 57,000 unaccompanied youths have been apprehended at the Southwest border since Oct. 1, more than twice the number this time last year. The sheer numbers have overwhelmed shelters and caseworkers responsible for placing the children with relatives or approved sponsors until their immigration cases are resolved.
Parents and other relatives who were targeted told the FBI that while they were waiting to be reunited, they received calls from individuals fluent in Spanish who were familiar with the system. The callers told the families that if they wanted their children, they would have to pay a fee first.
"Calls were made to cover the application fees, travel costs and other costs to reunify with the family," Lee said.
Scammers requested payments of $300 to $6,000, she said, and in at least one case, they collected bank information to take the money directly from the account. Some families paid, but it wasn't clear how much, Lee said. Investigators are still determining how many victims were defrauded and how much money was stolen.
Scammers usually called families after they had been contacted by a case manager contracted with the Department of Health and Human Services, she said.
Kenneth J. Wolfe, deputy director of the office of public affairs at the Administration for Children and Families, a division of Health and Human Services, declined to comment on whether there was a security breach.
"The well-being and safety of these children is our top priority, and we take any reports of fraud very seriously," Wolfe said via email.
"Trained case managers work with family members and sponsors of minors," he said. "No direct payment to shelters will ever be requested during the reunification process."
Wolfe said 1,037 children were being held at Lackland and 759 at Ft. Sill. Baptist Children and Family Services, a nonprofit group known as BCFS, administers both shelters, he said.
A BCFS spokeswoman said that as a condition of its government contract it had to refer questions to Health and Human Services.
In addition to California, Lee said, the suspects defrauded immigrant families in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, New York and Virginia.
Eric Tijerina, associate director of the immigrant children's legal program at the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants in Arlington, Va., said he hoped investigators uncovered whether there was a leak and, if so, how to prevent it from happening again.
"In times of need, in times of distress, that's when the scammers come out — just like we saw with Hurricane Katrina and the Haiti earthquake," he said. "This country is facing a humanitarian crisis, and scammers are preying on the sensitivities of families who haven't seen these children in years."