Texas Woman Sentenced in Virtual Kidnapping Extortion Scheme
HOUSTON – A 35-year-old Houston woman has been ordered to prison following her conviction of one count each of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and conspiracy to commit money laundering, announced U.S. Attorney Ryan K. Patrick. Yanette Rodriguez Acosta aka Yanette Patino pleaded guilty Feb. 22, 2018.
Today, Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal ordered Acosta to serve an 88-month sentence to be immediately followed by three years of supervised release. In handing down the sentence, the court noted that there was evil in the world and that the defendant had a gleeful disregard for the victims, causing pain, fear and long term effects for profit.
Acosta took part in a scheme in which her co-conspirators in Mexico called victims throughout the United States in Texas, California and Idaho, falsely claiming they had kidnapped a victim’s child. They demanded ransom money in exchange for the safe release of the child.
“This is a disgusting crime that preyed on a parent’s love for a child,” said Patrick. “Even though there was no actual kidnapping, the crime was designed to be very real to the victims. The perseverance and dedication of federal and state law enforcement agents and officers sends a strong message that we will not tolerate, and will zealously pursue, this kind of crime that terrorizes victims for financial gain.”
At the hearing today, victims detailed their harrowing and traumatizing experiences as they complied with the caller’s demands, who frequently threatened the victims and their family members with violence and retaliation if they reported the crime. The court also considered written victim impact statements. In one instance, a couple was informed that they could find their child at a nearby middle school. Not finding their son, and unable to get in touch with him, the couple then searched nearby dumpsters for the child’s body. Other victims described their loss of good health, sense of security, trust in others and the devastation and life-changing emotional trauma they experienced as a result of the crime.
“Virtual kidnapping schemes targeting American families are on the rise and those perpetrating the crime have perfected their techniques,” said Assistant Director in Charge Paul Delacourt, of the FBI's Los Angeles Field Office. “Victims of this terrifying scheme have experienced trauma, in addition to losing large sums of money. As the FBI and our partners continue to investigate these crimes and encourage the public to learn the signs of the scheme to avoid victimization, this sentencing should send a message to those perpetrating virtual kidnappings.”
“The sentence received by Acosta today represents a victory not just for the justice system, but for the many traumatized victims who received an intimidating phone call from the perpetrators of this heinous and cruel crime,” stated Special Agent in Charge R. Damon Rowe of IRS-Criminal Investigation (CI). “This investigation reflects IRS-CI’s steadfast commitment to protect our financial system from being used in an unscrupulous manner and hold accountable those who prey on the vulnerability of our relationships with our loved ones.”
The victims, who heard a gasping voice call for “mom” or “dad” on the phone, often responded with their child’s name, unaware that they were providing the caller with that information. Then, referring to the child by name, the caller claimed to have kidnapped the child, falsely leading the victim to believe there was an actual kidnapping.
Under threats of bodily harm, rape and murder of the child if the line were disconnected, many victims were forced to remain on speakerphone for hours while driving to banks and to various Western Union and MoneyGram locations. In some cases, victims were instructed to make cash drops at specified locations in Houston.
After confirming the wire transfer or money drop, the perpetrators instructed the victims to call the child, who had never been actually kidnapped, or to wait for the child at a specific location, knowing the child would not be there.
Previously released on bond, Acosta was taken into custody following sentencing today where she will remain pending transfer to a U.S. Bureau of Prisons facility to be determined in the near future.
The Los Angeles, California, Field Offices of the FBI and IRS-CI conducted the investigation along with the police departments in Los Angeles and Beverly Hills, California, and the Montgomery County, Texas, Sheriff’s Office with the assistance of Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations in Los Angeles.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Kate Suh is prosecuting the case. The Money Laundering and Asset Recovery Section of the Department of Justice also provided valuable assistance during the course of the investigation.