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Beware of Mexico’s latest criminal craze: ‘virtual kidnappings’

April 23, 2013

In days gone by, criminals would need a weapon, rope or handcuffs, a getaway car and a safe house in order to carry out a kidnapping. Now all they need is a cell phone.

“Virtual kidnappings” have become increasingly common in Mexico in recent years, with con men tricking victims into thinking that a family member has been abducted.

The daughter of a high-ranking former state official was recently targeted in this manner, Spanish-language daily Mural reported this week.

Having threatened the girl over the phone, the criminals scared her into checking into a local hotel and then called her parents saying she had been kidnapped. Fortunately, the girl’s father was familiar with such scams. He soon saw through the ruse and managed to locate his daughter and bring her home with no ransom having been paid.

In other cases, criminals have been known to steal a subject’s phone and use it to call one of their family members, claiming that their loved one has been kidnapped. They will then threaten to kill the supposed abductee if a ransom is not paid immediately through Western Union or a similar institution.

With Mexico having experienced a dramatic rise in drug-related violence in recent years, these criminals commonly play on people’s fears by falsely identifying themselves as members of notorious criminal networks such as Los Zetas.

They may also know certain details about their victims’ lives, such as their address, the number of children they have, or the model of car they drive, having abused the wealth of personal information available through online social networks such as Facebook.

Panicked, the victims sometimes play into the criminals’ hands by releasing information that further compromises them, such as other family members’ phone numbers or even their own bank details.

Such stress can lead the victims to lose their sense of reason and act irrationally, as was the case when the sister-in-law of a member of staff at the Guadalajara Reporter was targeted last week.

The woman received a phone call from a man identifying himself as a police officer who warned that she had been identified as a suspect in a criminal investigation. He told her that he could help her but that she must leave the house immediately to avoid being arrested.

The supposed police officer (whose number showed a Tamaulipas area code – a major clue that should have alerted the victim to the scam) told her to turn off her cell phone and buy a new one from a convenience store, on which they proceeded to communicate. He repeatedly told the victim not to hang up, ensuring that she stayed on the line throughout the duration of the ordeal.

The extortionist told her to go to the nearest city, in this case Guadalajara, and check into a hotel. She then made the mistake of telling him she would first go to pick up the kids from school.

Once she had arrived at a hotel in Guadalajara with her two children, the extortionist asked for her husband’s cell phone number, purportedly so that he could call and reassure him that she was okay. Of course, upon calling the husband, the extortionist told him that his wife and kids had been kidnapped. He demanded that a deposit of 500,000 pesos be made via the Coppel furniture store in exchange for their release.

Fortunately, the mother, who had finally begun to suspect the ruse, advised one of her children to text their uncle explaining their situation. This led to a realization of what had taken place and the victims left the hotel and later made a denouncement with the relevant authorities.

These scams may often be rumbled because they are reliant upon on a certain amount of guesswork, plus naivety on the part of the victim, but there is little if any risk involved on the part of the “kidnappers,” who are often located hundreds of miles away from those they are calling. They can make many extortion attempts every day, and with the large sums of money involved they only need the occasional success to make this practice worth their while.

In order to minimize the risk of virtual kidnappings, you should not answer calls from unknown or withheld numbers. If threatened, the best form of response is often to simply hang up and then attempt to contact the supposed victim of the kidnapping. Have the phone number of family members’ schools or workplaces noted down in case you cannot contact them via cell phone.

If you fear that the kidnapping is real then demand proof of life over the telephone. Asking to speak to the abductee will not increase the risk to them because genuine kidnappers know that they must prove their victim is alive in order to receive a ransom.

When on the phone, do not provide personal information or family members’ phone numbers to anyone – even if you think you recognize their voice. Do not leave your name or surname on your answering machine and, if possible, protect your cell phone with a password so that virtual kidnappers cannot use it to contact your friends or family members if it is lost or stolen.

To report a real or virtual kidnapping, call the Jalisco Prosecutor General’s Office on 3837-6000 or go in person to the Fiscalia Central at Calle 14, no. 2567, in Guadalajara’s Zona Industrial.

One Comment leave one →
  1. April 23, 2013 20:58

    they tried something like this on my elderly great aunt she got a call claiming to be one of her many nephews saying he was at the airport and had lost his wallet and needed her to send money she didn’t recognize his voice though made some calls after and found her nephew was home in the states so nothing happened but I assume somewhere there are some elderly people falling for the same scam

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