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South Florida Kidnapping Scam Wrings Ransom From Heartstrings

Juan Toro

How much would you pay for the life of your wife or husband? What about your brother or sister? Mother or father? Son or daughter? Can you put a price on your loved ones?  Telephone scammers are betting you’d pay anything to keep your family safe.

I got one of those “you won’t believe what just happened” calls not too long ago. A friend of a friend of a friend and his wife were virtually kidnapped at the same time. No, it’s not the mutated cousin of identity theft. It’s a telephone scam. The very next day I had the husband on the phone explaining what happened.

“I was at work and I received a call and when I answered the phone, the guy told me my wife had been in an accident,” Juan Toro, a Miami Lakes resident said.

His name is Juan Toro, a Miami Lakes resident. Probably a large percentage of the American population knows of e-mail and phone scams by now like the Nigerian Princes wanting to give away their vast wealth for no reason, but this is different. The man on the line is asking Toro for $1,500 in return for his wife.

“So I was just scared. I mean, you know what, $1,500 is not worth my wife’s life. What if I gamble and it’s true? How do I live with myself?” Toro said.

Toro didn’t hang up. The stranger on the line continued – Toro’s wife got into a car accident with the stranger and his cousin. But the two were wanted by the law and in a panic the cousin beat her up. They say she’s getting stitches and Toro needs to pay the $1,500 for damages to the stranger’s car. But what Toro didn’t know was at the exact same time, the scammers were telling the exact same lie to his wife about him. Marcos Rodriguez with the Miami-Dade Economic Crimes Bureau says there’s a better chance of them being in a Puerto Rican jail than Miami.

“Inmates are Puerto Rico that have these pre-paid phones that they’re smuggling into the prison cells,” Rodriguez said.

Even though the victims are in Florida, the criminals are in Puerto Rico. Any crime reports filed in Miami-Dade are sent to Puerto Rico to deal with the criminals. The San Juan Police Department couldn’t be reached for comment. But Rodriguez says there are raids of the jails every so often and phones are found, yet there’s not much else they can do. In the U.S. State Department, Christine Jackson is a Citizen Services Specialist dealing with this scam and others like it at the international level. Calls are also coming out of Mexico to all across the U.S. She says the best way to fight the scam is to just hang up the phone.

“I would say it’s impossible to stop scammers from calling. It is possible to stop them from ever being successful. And that is by not falling victim to their lies on the phone,” Jackson said.

Meanwhile Toro is driving from hospital to hospital. He’s paid the $1,500 through Western Union. And so too has his wife. The scammers say she’s at one hospital, and then they say she’s at another. “Then I spoke to my wife. So I got to hear my wife,” Toro said.

Toro said it only lasted for a few seconds. Enough time to say, “I’m alright. Do what you’re told.” He thinks they set up a three-way call between the phones. They asked for more money. He tried to send out a text for help.

“At this time they had called me twice. I picked up the other line and it was them again so they had my phone. Both lines were occupied so I couldn’t receive any calls or anything. My phone was blocked. I was trying to send texts out but text for some reason text wouldn’t go out,” Toro said.

He tried and failed to send them more money. He got a text through. His wife was safe. He hung up the phone. According to the Miami-Dade Economic Crimes Bureau the kidnapping scams have gone on for about the past two years. They’re targeting Spanish speakers. So it makes sense the vast majority of these scams are happening in South Florida. Though it’s happening far too often. Hortensia Lorie is another victim of the crime. In her case, the scammers slipped and said her brother drove a van when he actually drove a truck. She hung up. After she got in contact with her brother she called police dispatch “and she had a little chuckle. And she said, ‘you know I’m sorry I’m chuckling but I just got on shift and you are like the, maybe 40th call that I’ve gotten about this,” said Lorie.

That’s about the same thing a Pembroke Pines officer told Toro after his ordeal. And Rodriguez with the Miami-Dade Economic Crimes Bureau says, sounds about right.

“Personally I’ve spoken to people that they’ve been called several times within a month. And what they’ll do is they’ll call, they’ll say, ‘we have your daughter.’ And you know, what are you talking about I don’t have a daughter and they hang up the phone. So now they know they don’t have a daughter. And a couple weeks later they’ll call back and you know, ‘well your son,’” said Rodriguez.

Of course that places a conundrum on the whole thing. Are they organized enough to call a husband and wife at the same time and play them off one another? Or are they just calling any number they can find in the phone book? They’re specifically calling Spanish speakers, but don’t know if whom they’re calling has a son or a daughter, a sister or a brother. Jackson she says the level of organization is… well… random.

“Based on the range of calls we get, truly, I think there is a range. I think there are individuals out there who are kind of doing it on their own and I think there are far more organized. For example, for the grandparent scam, there really seem to be some who have set it up essentially like a small call center, like, you know, how you get robo-calls during election time,” Jackson said.

The scammers dialed three grand out of Toro and his wife but he doesn’t think he could change what happened.

“Well it’s just one of things that, you may think you’re prepared for because I’ve heard of scams and I’ve always said, ‘you know what? How could people fall for it? But you know once you’re in that situation it’s totally different,” Toro said.

Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi said she will ask her consumer protection agency to look into the scam. Though in the end, everyone had the same advice: take a deep breath, ask some questions – the scammers probably won’t be able to answer in detail – and find out who it is and who it isn’t.