HOUSTON (CN) – A federal grand jury charged a Houston woman with 10 felony counts over a 2015 virtual kidnapping scam in three states.
The grand jury charged Yanette Rodriguez Acosta, also known as Yanette Patino, on eight counts of wire fraud, one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and one count of conspiracy to commit money laundering.
Prosecutors say Acosta and others used Mexican telephone numbers to extort money from 39 individuals in Texas, California and Idaho by falsely representing that she had kidnapped the individuals’ children, according to a grand jury indictment unsealed Thursday.
Each of the 10 charges carry a maximum sentence of 20 years in federal prison, according to a statement from the Justice Department. If convicted, Acosta faces a maximum prison sentence of 200 years.
“These types of cases are tragic,” Acting U.S. Attorney Abe Martinez said in a statement. “It’s not the amount of money involved; it’s the fact that these people are tricked into believing that their loved ones are in danger and the horror and helplessness they feel as they scramble to secure what they think is their release.”
The crimes Acosta stands accused of are commonly referred to as a “virtual kidnapping for ransom” scheme, according to the indictment. No individuals were kidnapped; instead, families were led to believe their loved ones’ safety depended on ransom payments.
Prosecutors say Acosta and her co-conspirators demanded that victims “do a physical ‘money drop’ at a specific location within the Southern District of Texas.” Acosta then used people in the United States to wire the funds to Mexican accounts after she took a cut.
As an example, the indictment says one of Acosta’s co-conspirators called a person in The Woodlands, Texas, from a Mexican telephone number in September of 2015.
“The unindicted co-conspirator falsely claimed that the victim B.R.’s daughter had been kidnapped because the daughter ‘saw something she shouldn’t have’ and demanded a total of $15,000” for the daughter’s release, according to the indictment.
The co-conspirator initially instructed B.R. to wire transfer $2,000 to another accomplice in Mexico, the indictment states. The co-conspirator then required B.R. to deliver the remainder of the ransom at a physical location in Houston, Texas, and threatened to cut off the daughter’s fingers if B.R. failed to comply.
The scheme continued through October 2015, according to the indictment.
FBI and Internal Revenue Service field offices for criminal investigations in Los Angeles collaborated with police departments in Los Angeles, Beverly Hills, California. and the sheriff’s office in Montgomery County, Texas to investigate the case.
The Los Angeles Police Department could not immediately be reached for comment. However, LAPD issued a press release on Sept. 3, 2015, which alerted citizens to the same acts contained in Acosta’s indictment.
A media representative for the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office declined to give a statement regarding Acosta’s case, deferring comment to the Department of Justice in Texas.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Eun Ae ‘Kate’ Suh will prosecute the case, and could not immediately be reached for comment.
The Justice Department declined further comment.