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A San Pedro man is expected to be arraigned Thursday on federal charges that he pulled off a “virtual kidnapping” scam in which dozens of victims in Southern California and elsewhere were duped by phone into paying thousands of dollars in ransom to free their family members, who in reality hadn’t been kidnapped at all.

Julio Manuel Reyes “Muneco” Zuniga, 48, arrived at Los Angeles International Airport on Wednesday after being extradited by Mexico. Reyes Zuniga, a reputed member of a San Pedro street gang who had been imprisoned in Mexico since 1996 for two murder convictions, was taken into custody by the U.S. Marshals Service. He finished serving his prison sentence in Mexico last year and has been held since for extradition, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

He is expected to be arraigned in Los Angeles federal court Thursday afternoon.

A federal grand jury in September 2019 returned a 31-count indictment against Reyes Zuniga. He is charged with one count of conspiracy to commit extortion, 27 counts of extortion, two counts of foreign communication of threats with intent to extort money, and one count of conspiracy to launder monetary instruments.

If convicted of all charges, Reyes Zuniga would face up to 20 years in federal prison for each count in the indictment.

“Virtual kidnappings” happen when an unsuspecting victim is told via telephone that a family member has been kidnapped. When the victim answers the phone, there is typically a panicked or gasping voice on the phone pleading for help. Then, through additional deception and threats, the criminal coerces the victim to pay a ransom. The criminal also threatens harm to the family member if the scam victim contacts law enforcement or alerts authorities. No one is physically kidnapped in these schemes, but the effects are often traumatic for everyone involved. On average, a family sends thousands of dollars to the scammers before contacting law enforcement, according to federal prosecutors.

The indictment alleges that from September 2015 to June 2018, while serving a murder conviction in a prison outside Mexico City, Reyes Zuniga and others acting at his direction falsely represented to victims on the phone that they had kidnapped the victims’ child or loved one, and planned to harm them unless a ransom was paid for their release. In reality, no kidnappings had taken place.

He and others working at his direction allegedly then demanded ransom payments in the form of wire transfers, cash drops at locations or the purchase of electronics such as iPhones or iPads. Once the funds were wired or delivered, individuals in Mexico delivered the proceeds to the imprisoned Reyes Zuniga. Investigators believe these kinds of schemes are perpetrated via cellphones smuggled into Mexican prisons, court papers state.

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