When Valerie Sobel answered a call two years ago from a phone number she didn’t recognize, the person on the other end made a threat that would terrify any parent.
The caller said, “We have your daughter Simone’s finger,” Sobel said. “Do you want the rest of her in a body bag?”
Horrified, Sobel rushed to follow the orders barked at her over the phone. She drove to a nearby location, following street-by-street directions through her West Los Angeles neighborhood, and wired $4,000 to the caller who claimed to have kidnapped her daughter. The instructions were specific, down to the number of pieces to shred the wire transfer receipt into, Sobel said.
Hours passed. Sobel repeatedly called her daughter but could not get through. Finally, Simone returned her mother’s call, confused by the frantic messages.
Simone was fine, but Sobel was one of hundreds of people in Southern California targeted by criminals hoping to carry out a scheme that law enforcement officials have termed “virtual kidnapping for ransom,” a plot in which suspects repeatedly call numbers hoping to extort money from mortified parents after convincing them a loved one is being held hostage.
A network of suspects in the U.S. and Mexico have been making the calls since at least 2015, affecting thousands of people in several states, including California, according to Gene Kowel, acting special agent in charge of the FBI’s criminal division in Los Angeles.
“We are not going to arrest or charge our way out of this problem,” Kowel said. “Education is the key.”
Investigators made their first arrest in connection with the scam last week. Yanette Rodriguez Acosta, 34, of Houston was indicted on charges of wire fraud and conspiracy to commit money laundering, according to court records. If convicted, she faces up to 20 years in prison. Her case will mark the first federal prosecution for a so-called virtual kidnapping, Kowel said.
According to the indictment, Acosta and other unnamed conspirators used Mexican telephone numbers to call targets in Los Angeles and Beverly Hills, claiming to hold the victims’ children as prisoners. Such demands were made to at least 39 victims in California, Texas and Idaho, court records show. Kowel said the scam has also targeted residents of Minnesota.
At least 250 calls were aimed at Los Angeles residents, costing victims roughly $114,000, said Capt. William Hayes, who leads the Los Angeles Police Department’s elite Robbery-Homicide Division. An additional 50 calls were made to residents of Beverly Hills, spokeswoman Lt. Elisabeth Albanese said.
Kowel said he believes thousands of similar calls have been made across the country.
The methodology of the scam can vary. In most cases, Hayes said, the callers would target an area code at random and then repeatedly place calls until they persuaded someone to give into their demands. In other instances, the scammers researched their targets on social media and gleaned information about the victims’ relatives before placing the call.
Either way, the callers often threatened real violence in their fake kidnappings. According to the indictment against Acosta, a caller told one victim they would cut off their daughter’s fingers if the ransom was not paid in September 2015. Most of the victims were ordered to wire the ransom payments to accounts in Mexico, but in at least two instances, victims were also ordered to make physical money drops in Texas.
Acosta allegedly picked up some of those funds and wired a portion to unknown cohorts in Mexico, according to the indictment. Investigators believe the money was used to continue perpetrating the scam.
Authorities have identified several additional suspects in Mexico and are working to track them down, Kowel said.
Hayes acknowledged the primal fear that would likely take hold of someone receiving a phone call threatening to harm a loved one, but he urged residents to hang up and immediately make contact with their children, and then call police.
“Just to hear a scream in the background is enough to get almost anybody,” he said.
Still, the threats can ensnare even the most well-trained target.
An LAPD sergeant, who declined to give his first name, said he received one such call in 2015.
A woman screamed “Daddy, help me” into the phone, but Sgt. Smith said he did not recognize the voice. A male voice quickly got on and threatened to kill the sergeant’s daughter unless he paid a ransom.
The sergeant was driving, but he eventually flagged down some Torrance police officers and contacted his daughter’s school to confirm she was safe before paying. Still, he admitted, fear quickly overtook any skepticism he had about the validity of the call.
“All that training kind of goes out the window when it’s personal to you,” he said. “They specifically threatened to put a bullet in the back of my child’s head.”
Follow @JamesQueallyLAT for crime and police news in California.
7:15 p.m.: This article was updated with information from a news conference.
This article was originally published at 1:50 p.m.