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Mexican Officials Warn of Phone Scams Targeting Immigrants

Impulso, News Report, Mireya Olivera Posted: Apr 05, 2009

"Good morning aunt (or uncle)! I'm calling to tell you that I am on my way. I'm at the border, and I am on the road with some friends."

That's how the phone conversation begins, with an alleged nephew returning from the U.S. to his country of origin.

"How wonderful that you're coming, and when do you arrive?" asks the aunt in Mexico. "I'll call you tomorrow to tell you where I am," answers the alleged nephew, who at times gives his name and speaks in a familiar tone.

The next day, the alleged nephew calls his aunt again-this time he is concerned: "I'm in Tijuana (or another place close to the border), and have been detained by federal authorities because I have gifts for my parents. They want to seize them or put me in jail if I don't give them money!

The nephew hands to the phone to an alleged government officer.

"Ma'am, we have your nephew," the impersonator says. "How do you want us to handle this, because we're going to transfer him."

The nephew gets back on the phone her: "Aunt, they are asking me for 25,000 pesos (sometimes the amounts are more than $2,500 in U.S. dollars) or they'll put me in jail, please find the money!"

"Don't worry," she responds. "Tell the officer that we will gather the money so that they won't put you in jail."

Then the alleged officer speaks with the aunt again, and instructs her to deposit the money to a specific account, providing the number.

This is how extortionists operate and take advantage of well-intended family members who often fall prey to lies.

According to Itzel Ortiz, national coordinator for the Paisano Program, established during the administration of former Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, the Paisano programs aims to guarantee fellow countrymen that their entries and exits will be safe and their rights upheld as they make their way through Mexican territory. Last year alone there have been 120 cases of such phone extortion. An estimated 100 of the cases were calls fabricated by criminals who prey on immigrants they didn't really have the family member, but knew enough personal information to fake an abduction.

Federal officials recommend that potential travelers avoid making calls to family members or giving anyone details about their trips to Mexico because criminals can use this information to swindle families.

The wave of extortion has hit particularly hard in the past few months in Oaxaca and other Mexican states with large migrant populations. There are no confirmed reports of how many families have been swindled. Many such cases are not reported to official channels, but anecdotal information points to a big increase lately. Members of one family in Oaxaca by the name of Hernandez offer such evidence. They have received two calls this year from extortionists. They checked on the whereabouts of their relative by calling him personally, exposing the extortionists fabrications.

"On both occasions my relative was at his workplace in the U.S., and not detained by authorities, which is what we were being told," said one member of the Hernandez family. "Fortunately, we knew that this was an extortion and did not give the swindlers money."

Police officials have said that information they have obtained indicates that some of the extortionists operate as part of a ring that apparently targets victims in all segments of Mexican society. Alfredo Adame, a popular Mexican television show host, apparently fell victim to a phone extortion recently, losing his car and $4,000 that he deposited in a bank account to be withdrawn by the swindlers.

Paisano Program director Ortiz urges immigrants and their families to report any abuses or extortions by any public official or criminal. Mexican officials also recommend victims to immediately contact any family member who is the subject of a phone extortion call to see if they are actually being held.

Mireya Olivera is editor of Impulso.

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