MIAMI — The federal government is investigating how detailed information about migrant children being held at two American military bases wound up in the hands of con artists who are using it to lure unsuspecting relatives into paying hefty sums to reunite their families, preying on people who have been separated for years, according to the F.B.I.
Now, the F.B.I. says, swindlers have gotten hold of precise details about the children to reach out to their relatives across the country, claiming that payments are required to cover the processing costs and travel expenses of reuniting families. Cases of the fraud have been reported in 12 states so far, from New York to California, with the con artists seeking $350 to $6,000 in so-called fees, the F.B.I. says.
“There are enough cases that it’s not an isolated incident. It is a problem,” said Michelle Lee, a spokeswoman for the F.B.I. in San Antonio.
The leak of information is the latest setback in a saga that has compromised the Obama administration’s broader aspirations for an immigration overhaul. Investigators are trying to determine whether a federal database on the children was hacked, or if a contractor or government employee with access to information on the minors sold it to con artists, a government official familiar with the case said.
The children whose families were targeted were all housed at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio and at Fort Sill in Oklahoma, military installations that have held nearly 4,500 unaccompanied minors since they began handling the overflow of Central American children arriving at the border.
The F.B.I. started investigating last week after learning that people sponsoring unaccompanied minors had been approached by someone posing as a charity worker, who pretended to facilitate the reunifications.
In each case, the con artist was fluent in Spanish and seemed keenly aware of the immigration process, which made the calls all the more convincing, Ms. Lee said. The caller seemed aware of the stage of the child’s immigration journey and knew who to call at a time just before the migrant’s release.
“They are typically parents, aunts, uncles and close friends of the children who are here in the United States,” Ms. Lee said. “Essentially, they are called and told there are application fees or cost for travel that must be paid, and most of the people assume there is a cost and don’t question it.”
In a similar scheme, someone appears to have spoofed the phone number of a San Antonio business organization in an attempt to lend credibility to the claim, the F.B.I. said. The payments are requested via wire transfer, debit payment or money order.
“They’re asking for $6,000, $3,000, $350, $750,” Ms. Lee said. “The numbers are significant enough that it is clear to us that someone thought about this and made a lot of phone calls. Some of these were debit payments where they requested the bank information. That’s really scary.”
One Miami housekeeper who recently paid a smuggler to bring her 16-year-old daughter from Honduras said that she had been communicating with a woman claiming to be a social worker at a shelter in Texas where her daughter was being held. The woman told her she had to pay $2,000 for her daughter’s one-way ticket from Texas.
“I said to her, ‘Why so much? How much is the ticket?’ ” said the housekeeper, Eva, who asked that her last name not be published because she is in the country illegally. “I started getting suspicious when she could not tell me how much the ticket was. I told her, ‘How do you not know if you are the one purchasing it?’ ”
The woman then lowered the price to $1,500 and passed the phone to a second person, who took down Eva’s debit card information. When Eva’s bank statement came, she said she saw three separate withdrawals.
“I tell this story to people and nobody ever believes me,” she said. “Now I realize that I was tricked.”
She said she had not seen her daughter in 14 years, making her more willing to dismiss her doubts.
“With all the emotion of seeing my daughter, the money becomes the least you are worrying about,” she said.