Virtual Kidnappings Scare Up Ransoms in Mexico

By Matthew Harwood

There's a new emerging criminal trend in Mexico, according to The New York Times, which uses the real fear of kidnapping to dupe unsuspecting victims to give up cash and valuables in return for their loved ones, who are actually safe and sound.

Called "virtual kidnapping," criminals use telephones or cellphones to extract a quick ransom from victims before they learn the kidnapping of their loved one is a hoax.

The Monterrey Country Council, an organization that serves to facilitate communication between the U.S. Embassy and U.S. organizations operating in the Mexican city, describes the modus operandi of the call:

[T]he virtual kidnapping calls have included a crying/pleading voice immediately after the call is answered and before the “kidnapper” gets on the phone. In this manner, they hoped to confuse the victim and get them to give away important information; for example, if the crying voice sounds like your child in any way, and you call out that child’s name, the caller now knows the name of the child that could potentially be a kidnap victim, and will use this knowledge against you. The voice of the “victim” will usually be crying and/or hysterical – this makes it difficult to identify and increase the likelihood that you will believe it is in fact your loved one.

The Times calls it Mexico's latest "criminal craze."

A new hot line set up to deal with the problem of kidnappings in which no one is actually kidnapped received more than 30,000 complaints from last December to the end of February, Joel Ortega, Mexico City’s police chief, announced recently. There have been eight arrests, and 3,415 telephone numbers have been identified as those used by extortionists, he said.

Identifying phone numbers, however, does little good to the police since most of cellphones the calls are traced back to are stolen. Nearly a third of the callers collect some type of ransom, according to an unidentified study reviewed by the Times.

No one seems immune from the con, including members of Mexico's Congress.  Last November, virtual kidnappers told more than a dozen that their children had been kidnapped. The ruse was uncovered quickly, but the legislature closed down for the day.

One quirk is where most of the calls originate: prisons.

As the Associated Press wrote last year:

Prisoners also carry out virtual kidnappings, either lining up associates on the outside to collect the money, or ordering victims to buy dozens of prepaid cellular phone cards whose codes can be relayed by telephone. The prisoners then charge fellow inmates exorbitant rates to use their cell phones.

Mexico has responded by outlawing cell phones in prisons, but inmates routinely bribe prison guards to look the other way.

Mexico isn't  the only Latin American country to experience virtual kidnappings, according to an Associated Press report last year. Argentina, Brazil, and Guatemala also suffer from the con.

For more information about what do to if you find yourself on the receiving end of one of these calls, read these tips from the Monterrey Country Council.


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