Is Migrante rescatado en Frontera N.A. a Facebook page to help search for missing migrants? No, that's not true: The page with over 8,000 followers claims to help families find their missing loved ones on the U.S.-Mexico border. But experts and victims say this page has instead been set up to find families of missing migrants to extort, demanding payment then not delivering promised information on the missing.
A February 19, 2023, post on the page said 19 migrants of different nationalities had been rounded up in Laredo by Texas authorities and Border Patrol. But Lead Stories discovered that one of the photos illustrating the post -- the one with numerous immigrants lying face down -- was actually a stock image that had already been published in May 2018 in the Honduran newspaper La Prensa.
The post said (Spanish translated by Lead Stories):
During an operation carried out by the Lone Star special security department in Texas and the #BorderPatrol a property was seized where 19 people of different nationalities were found with no official county residence papers they only mentioned name and nationality
The post went on to say:
For more information get in contact through the page.
This is what the photo looked like at the time of writing. Names have been removed from the Facebook comments for safety reasons. The green and red marking were added by Lead Stories.
(Source: Facebook.com screenshot taken on Tues Feb 28 at 00:00 2023 UTC)
Lead Stories circled in red the comment of a person who asks for the names of the people in the photo. That person goes on to reveal they have a family member who is missing. Lead Stories circled in green the response from the page manager, who asks her to write via Messenger (or in his/her words "via the page"). The out-of-date photo has functioned as bait, but is not related to any roundup in 2023.
Experts say vague posts on fake Facebook publications such as this one are a strategy to identify people vulnerable to extortion because of their eagerness to find loved ones. When family members see that numerous migrants have been found, but no names are given, they hope their loved one is among them. So, they willingly share the details about their loved one as well as their own contact details, asking anyone with information to come forward. In doing so they reveal sensitive information that is then used to pressure them into paying for information about their missing loved one.
According to information provided in the page's "About" section, the page manager's location is Mexico. No name is available through Facebook transparency links.
In the next screenshot from the page, a Facebook user says that her loved one disappeared in McAllen, Texas, on September 8, 2021. She gives his name, says he is from Nicaragua and sends thanks and blessings. These comments show how the pictures on inauthentic migrant aid pages drive family members to reach out.
(Source: Facebook.com screenshot taken on Thurs February 23 at 18:45 2023 UTC)
How Does the Scam Work?
As Alejandro Ortigoza, one of the founders of Armadillos - Ni un Migrante Menos, a volunteer search group for missing migrants in the deserts of Arizona and California, puts it: "Some of these pages launch the bait to see what they catch."
He explains the extortion strategy: The Facebook page posts about a real or fake news item involving numerous unnamed migrants:
People comment on Facebook saying: 'My son is missing. He went to Texas and has a tattoo on his left arm. Please call me on this number if you have any information about him.' When later people call to extort them, the family members of the missing migrant are in such shock that they may not even remember that they themselves gave away that information online.
The people extorting migrant families often have no connection to the missing migrant. They prey on the families on social media, pretending to know of the migrant's whereabouts, at times posing as a kidnapper and making threats. Often this involves creating photo montages of the missing migrant with stolen photos from Facebook. The photos showing the migrant in distress or even holding a sign saying HELP are sent to the family members via Messenger demanding money for their release. But often the extortionist has no idea where the missing person is. The extortionists find their victims online. Everything happens virtually, including payment via bank transfers or money transfer services like Western Union.
Lead Stories interviewed a Mexican schoolteacher, whose family had been extorted at least five times after her post about her older brother's disappearance in the northern state of Tamaulipas in 2022 went viral. Lead Stories also reviewed documents in her possession. She is active on social media, as was her brother, posting photos and other information.
"I think the biggest mistake was publishing (her brother's disappearance online) without consulting the authorities," the woman said. Lead Stories granted her anonymity to protect her from retribution.
Soon after she posted about his disappearance, extortionists contacted her sister, her uncle in the United States and herself on three separate occasions to demand money in exchange for the release of her brother who, they said, had been held captive. She estimates the total amount handed over through wire transfers has been more than 40,000 pesos (or over US$2,000, more than six times the monthly minimum wage in Mexico in 2023.)
The extorters' initial contact has always been via Facebook, she says. The latest extortion attempt, from yet another Facebook profile, came on February 26, 2023, via Messenger. A person with a female name sent the teacher a photo of her brother's face obviously pasted onto a body kneeling on the ground in a black hoodie and holding a sign saying I AM FINE in Spanish. Lead Stories is not publishing the photo to prevent it being used again. The teacher said she met another woman also seeking a brother in Tamaulipas who had been sent the same photo with a different face on it. Lead Stories has examined both photos and determined they are identical but for the swapped-in faces.
By the time the schoolteacher approached Migrante rescatado en Frontera N.A, hoping they might have information about her brother, she was familiar with extortion strategies but desperate enough to try again. So when they asked her an unusual amount of questions via Messenger (see screenshots below), she got suspicious and refused to answer. "We need at least two phone numbers, two of yours and one of your family member in the United States," they wrote, in Spanish.
(Source: Facebook Messenger screenshot taken on Thurs March 2 02:45 2023 UTC)
(Source: Facebook Messenger screenshot taken on Thu Mar 2 02:45 2023 UTC )
"These pages make you write to them so that you reveal information. Then they write to you from another profile saying that they have your brother. They get a lot of information out of you so that they can later extort you," she said. "The people that extort you are the ones that control these pages," she insisted.
Mirza Monterroso, Missing Migrant Project and DNA program director at the Colibrí Center for Human Rights, agrees that the extortion of families of missing migrants via social media is a problem. In a February 20, 2023, phone interview in Spanish with Lead Stories, she said:
The families of missing migrants often want to publish on Facebook. We always put a watermark on the photos of people and the organization's phone number. And we tell the families not to comment saying it is their brother or their cousin. Because otherwise, they will be extorted for sure.
Publishing on Facebook "hardly ever gives good results and it increases the danger," she added. The Colibrí Center for Human Rights has even received calls from scammers thinking that they were calling a family member instead of the actual organization.
Other Pages Identified as Scams
(Source: Facebook screenshot taken on Fri February 24 at 16:59 2023 UTC)
Fundacion De Búsqueda Y Rescate de Migrantes: This Facebook page appropriates the logo of the Mexican government's National Migration Institute (INM) and claims to be a foundation based in Houston to help rescue missing migrants. But the foundation does not exist at this address. Lead Stories' search of Texas business name registrations found no current or expired registration for the Fundacion De Búsqueda Y Rescate de Migrantes. And the Mexican government denies any connection.
The Fundacion's page was created January 12, 2023. By February 26, 2023, it had 583 followers and Facebook transparency information shows it ran ads in February to increase its following.
Below you can see that the purported address of the "Fundacion" has clearly been photo edited onto a photo of a monument sign:
(Source: TinEye.com and Facebook.com screenshot on Tues Feb 21 at 18:45 2023 UTC)
A February 14, 2023, post on the "Fundacion" page shows a video of members of the Mexican government's Beta Group, the humanitarian arm of the National Migration Institute (INM), approaching in the dark to rescue a group of people stranded among shrubs and water. The original video had been posted on the official INM page the day before, on February 13, 2023, at 5 p.m.
The version on the Facebook page of Fundacion De Búsqueda Y Rescate de Migrantes has replaced the official INM logo at the end of the tape with the Fundacion logo, as though the fake group had itself rescued the migrants. See below: the appropriated INM logo with the name of the alleged foundation Fundación de Búsqueda y Rescate de Migrantes.
(Source: Screenshot taken Wed March 1 at 16:20 2023 UTC)
The Facebook page posing as a foundation also copied language from the INM post about the conditions of the rescue (translated from Spanish by Lead Stories):
Beta Group rescues 11 migrants in the rio Grande on the border with #Coahuila
The National Institute of #Migration (INM) of the Ministry of the Interior rescued 11 migrants in Coahuila from the cold and strong current of the #RioGrande where they had been stranded as they attempted to cross illegally into the #UnitedStates.
But more importantly, the "Fundacion" directs readers, mainly families of missing migrants, to its Whatsapp number, where they will not reach the Mexican government organization and are vulnerable to extortion by the fake foundation:
For more information contact us at the numbers below or directly through the page!!
This is what the misleading post looked like at the time of writing:
(Source: Facebook.com screenshot taken on Mon February 27, 22:14 2023 UTC)
A spokesperson for the Mexican Embassy in Washington, D.C, has confirmed that the page "has no connection to the National Migration Institute."
In a February 24, 2023, WhatsApp message to Lead Stories, the Embassy representative added (translation by Lead Stories):
The Mexican government is concerned that citizens of Mexico or other nationalities who do not consult official sources can become victims of fraud or disinformation.The Ministry of Foreign Affairs runs frequent information campaigns to alert about the risks of not consulting official government sources. The official INM page can be found here. It has the blue checkmark. (Indicating a Meta Verified page)
Muchachos en busca del sueño americano, a Facebook page with 8,300 followers as of March 2, 2023, was created in March 2022.
Carlos Ortega, a researcher recommended to Lead Stories by a human rights organization, identified this page, like the previous one, as a fake humanitarian page that seeks to bait and scam the families searching for missing migrants.
According to Facebook transparency information, the page manager is located in Mexico but no name is attached to the page. Although Lead Stories did not identify any page user who had been extorted, some patterns were familiar. After one post of unidentified migrants' photos, a user wrote with the name and age of a missing person. The page administrator wrote back: "... escribanos en privado para mas informacion" which translates to "write to me in private for more information."
But the page misrepresents both the content and the origin of its photos.
A February 22, 2023, post on Muchachos en busca del sueño americano's page says (in Spanish) that migrants had been rescued in Acuña in the northern Mexican state of Coahuila:
Migrants rescued in acuña cuahila
The post (shown below) included a picture of 33 migrants who had been found not in Mexico, but in Laredo, Texas, and two years earlier. Lead Stories found the image was published July 9, 2021, in a Texas newspaper, The Beaumont Enterprise, which says the photos were taken by U.S. Border Patrol.
(Source: Facebook screenshot taken on Sun Feb 26 at 20:16 2023 UTC)
Fake page, but real problem
The International Organization for Migration's Missing Migrants Project has registered 7,500 migrants missing in the Americas since 2014, many of them on the U.S.-Mexico border.
Some drown or die of heat and exhaustion or are abandoned by their smuggler along the route. Cartel violence, including kidnappings, is also a threat.
To make matters worse, when migrants disappear, their families are vulnerable to extortion by people seeking to take advantage of their desperation to find their loved ones.
How to get help