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SAN DIEGO – Four people have been charged in a scheme that used telemarketing tactics to shake down immigrants for ransom money under the guise that loved ones had been kidnapped, according to an indictment unsealed Friday.

In reality, no one had been snatched and the callers didn’t even know who they were dialing.

But in a small percentage of successes since 2007, the “virtual kidnappers” collected at least $500,000, federal investigators said.

Callers in Tijuana, Mexico, used about 30 different San Diego phone numbers to make the calls – up to 5,000 a day – demanding that money be wired, saying they were holding a relative who had been heading to the U.S. illegally. The four charged with wire fraud and other crimes are accused of picking up ransom payments in the San Diego area and bringing the money to Tijuana.

While authorities say the scammers were targeting immigrants, the numbers were dialed at random.

“They would just randomly run through a sequence of numbers, like 1 to 100,” said Daniel Page, assistant special agent in charge of U.S. Immigration and Customs and Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations unit in San Diego. “They’re just like your professional telemarketer. They have a script. ‘You need to pay this money. If you don’t, something’s going to happen.’ ”

Callers had no idea if their victims really had loved ones crossing the border but figured that enough calls would eventually produce a hit, Page said. When someone took the bait they usually paid between $1,000 and $3,000.

“Virtual kidnapping” is a common scam in Latin America, especially in Mexico, Brazil and Guatemala, authorities say.