It’s a dream come true: a phone call from a long-lost relative who is finally able to leave Cuba and is en route to America. But the call ends in thievery and disappointment for some families.
That’s because after hearing the good news, the caller explains there’s just one catch. They need money to complete the trip. 89-year-old, Hialeah grandmother Hilda Jimenez got that call last month.
The man on the line said he was Jimenez’s long lost nephew with exciting news—he fled his remote town in Cuba and flew to Cancun because it was easier for him to enter the US from Mexico. Now he was just one flight away from Miami.
“I was so happy because he said he was bringing me a surprise. I thought the surprise was that he was bringing my sister,” said Jimenez.
Jimenez was already dreaming of all she would do with the sister she hadn’t seen in 20 years when the caller explained he needed a little help. The man claiming to be her nephew said he was stranded in Cancun’s airport after being stopped by Mexican Customs officials.
“He was carrying 18-thousand dollars in a suitcase and he didn’t declare it and they confiscated it,” Jimenez said.
Next, someone on the phone claiming to be a Mexican customs official explained there were fees that needed to be sent immediately so Jimenez’s family could leave Mexico. Jimenez and her son-in-law Jose Diego were told they would have to wire the money, not to Cancun where the relatives were stuck, but fourteen hundred miles away to Guadalajara. Diego and Jimenez were told to go to a Miami Lakes store where they wired more than a thousand dollars to save their relatives.
“She (Jimenez) was all excited. She received the calls from the guys: ‘Thank you, tia. I’m on my way to the plane now. We’re going to be so happy. We’ll see you in a couple of hours’,” said Diego.
But quickly the Jimenez’s joy turned to dread after another call from the man who said he was her nephew.
“Running to the gate to the plane he hit a girl and the girl fell on the floor… I don’t know if… it was a broken nose or some cut on the head. And he had to give to her mom $500 to take care of the situation," said Diego. The caller said since the mishap caused him to miss his flight, he needed more money to catch a new one.
And that’s when Diego figured out they had been duped. Diego headed to the Mexican consulate in Miami to let them know about the scheme.
It turns out this wasn’t the first time consulate employees have heard this story—recently several victims have come here reporting they lost as much as three thousand dollars each.
“I feel sick,” said Diego.
“Anybody asking for money over the phone is typically a scam,” said FBI special agent Michael Leverock. He says technology makes it easy for thieves to learn a lot about their victims and it also makes it tough to catch them.
“You’ve got to realize this isn’t the person next door calling. Actually it could be, but more likely it could be across the country or across the world,” said Leverock.
Thieves are becoming more sophisticated--even buying American telemarketing lists to find their targets and then counting on the victim’s love of family to rip them off.
Investigators say victims lose millions of dollars to scams like this each year. While Jimenez is grateful she didn’t lose more money she says she’s still devastated someone could actually use her loyalty to her family in Cuba against her. “It’s a betrayal. They search for people who have family there,” said Jimenez.
The FBI says if you get a call like this, call your relative to verify their identity before sending any money. They suggest contacting the U.S. embassy if you think a loved one needs help. They also warn: once you wire money, it’s usually gone forever. And if you have fallen victim to a scam like this, click on the link here to report it to the FBI.