HOUSTON (AP) – Scammers have been preying on the relatives of unaccompanied young migrants being held at two U.S. military bases by conning them into paying nonexistent fees to be reunited with their loved ones, officials said.
The FBI is trying to determine how many people have been victimized by the scheme, in which con artists use private information about the children to contact their family members and demand payment for bogus processing and travel expenses needed to reunite the kids with their relatives.
"With each day that passes, we identify new victims who have paid money and have suffered losses," Michelle Lee, a spokeswoman for the San Antonio FBI office, said Friday.
No arrests have been made and the FBI has declined to say how those behind the scheme may have gotten the children's personal information.
The children whose families have been contacted by the scammers were staying at shelters at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio and Fort Sill in Oklahoma. The shelters are run by Baptist Child and Family Services, a San Antonio-based nonprofit, on behalf of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the agency in charge of the children's welfare.
The children at Lackland and Fort Sill are some of the tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors who have been caught at the U.S.-Mexico border. More than 57,000 minors have arrived since October, mostly from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.
As part of the process of reuniting children at the two military bases with family members in the U.S., case workers for the nonprofit contact relatives. But at some point after that initial contact, scammers have been calling relatives and demanding money to complete the reunification process, Lee said.
The scammers have requested payments ranging from $300 to $6,000 and have called relatives in 12 states, including Alabama, Florida and Massachusetts.
Case workers have been able to warn relatives of the scam, with some family members telling investigators that con artists who called them hung up once they were challenged about the legitimacy of their requests, Lee said.
"The well-being and safety of these children is our top priority and we take any reports of fraud very seriously," Kenneth Wolfe, a Department of Health and Human Services spokesman, said in an email. "No direct payment to shelters will ever be requested during the reunification process."
There are currently 999 children at the Lackland temporary shelter, Wolfe said. Thus far, 3,376 children have gone through the Lackland shelter. Fort Sill currently has 706 children, with 1,155 having gone through the facility.
Krista Piferrer, a spokeswoman for Baptist Child and Family Services, did not return several phone calls seeking comment.
Lee said investigators are hoping other victims will reach out to authorities. Any tips can be made anonymously to any FBI office around the country or on the agency's web site, she said.