Phone Scam Hits Migrants' Families in Mexico

Scammers are targeting the families of Mexicans who are working north of the border. Calls to rural Mexico urge family members to send money for a relative who has had trouble in the United States.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

For many people in this hemisphere, illegal immigration is a way of life. A family member in, say, Mexico, makes the hard journey north to work illegally in the United States. And for those left behind, life can be difficult or lonely. And now there's something else, a scam affecting the families of migrants in rural areas.

NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro describes how the scam works.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: It always begins with a phone call. The brother of 42-year-old tortilla-maker Yolanda Omalla(ph) got one about two months ago.

Ms. YOLANDA OMALLA (Tortilla-maker): (Through Translator) They called one afternoon and they asked him his name. Then they said I'm your nephew calling from the United States. And he says, which one of them? Daniel? And they said yes, Daniel.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Now the scammer has both the name of uncle and the name of the nephew, which in this case was Yolanda Omalla's son who works as an undocumented migrant in the U.S. This caller says he's coming back to Mexico and wants to bring his uncle a present. The contact has been established. And then comes the second call.

Ms. OMALLA: (Through Translator) They called him again and this time it was another person, not the same one. He said I'm an airport official and your nephew has been detained because he was carrying guns and other dangerous things. He said for him to be let go, you need to handover $800.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yolanda Omalla's brother caught on and didn't pay up.

Ms. CARMEN KENO: (Speaking Foreign Language)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But 30-year-old Carmen Keno wasn't so lucky. All in all, they scammed $1500 from different members of her family over several months. The conmen first called her cousin, telling him that Carmen's husband, who's been in the U.S. for four years, was the one who was caught at the airport. They told him to deposit about $500 in a bank account, which he did.

Ms. KENO: (Through Translator) We talked about it with my family. And one of my uncles says to me, what idiots, why didn't they investigate?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: A few months went by, and then that same uncle that was ridiculing her cousin was rung up, and told to pay a thousand dollars to again get her husband out of jail. Without saying a word to Carmen, he rushed off to Mexico City to pay and save his nephew from what he thought was prison.

Ms. KENO: (Through Translator) We don't know how they tracked him down, too. Maybe it was someone we know. Maybe they were criminals using the phonebook.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Carmen actually got a third call several weeks later, after that, at her home. But by then they couldn't be fooled.

Ellen Calmus runs a project for migrants in the town of Malinalco, where these migrant families have been receiving the calls. She says the grifters are extorting money from the most vulnerable part of the population here.

Ms. ELLEN CALMUS (Proyecto El Rincón): This area is new to migration. When people leave this area, they don't have a lot of experience. Their families don't have experience.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Calmus is conducting a broad survey of the migrant population in the area, through the school system. In one middle school, her preliminary result show that 74 percent of those heading north have left Malinalco in the last five years. Because those who leave are undocumented, they can't call home regularly and the families don't know where they are, or what might have happened to them. So when an authority figure gets on the phone to them they are afraid. Mistrustful, they rarely go to get help.

Ms. CALMUS: People know people whose migrant relatives have returned in coffins - recently. So it's scary and it's scary for a reason. And the families here really do pull together. So, somebody's in trouble and you reach out to another extended network. People help with money they don't have. They borrow money.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Carmen Keno says she thinks the families of migrants are being targeted because people think they have large amounts of cash.

Ms. KENO: (Through Translator) It's very sad. It takes so much out of them to get that money together over there. That was a lot of money they took. My husband has been gone for four years. And in those four years, we had hoped we would be able to make enough to have our own house. We are building it. But after all this time, we have not yet even gotten to the roof.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And then she starts to cry and her fear and longing break through. She says my husband is in the United States so that our children in Malinalco can have better clothes, better food. But the best thing, him, is away from us, up there.

Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Malinalco, Mexico.

INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

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