MEXICO CITY — The phone call begins with the cries of an anguished child calling for a parent: “Mama! Papa!” The youngster’s sobs are quickly replaced by a husky male voice that means business.
“We’ve got your child,” he says in rapid-fire Spanish, usually adding an expletive for effect and then rattling off a list of demands that might include cash or jewels dropped off at a certain street corner or a sizable deposit made to a local bank.
The twist is that little Pablo or Teresa is safe and sound at school, not duct-taped to a chair in a rundown flophouse somewhere or stuffed in the back of a pirate taxi. But when the cellphone call comes in, that is not at all clear.
This is “virtual kidnapping,” the name being given to Mexico’s latest crime craze, one that has capitalized on the raw nerves of a country that has been terrorized by the real thing for years.
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.
But identifying the phone numbers — they are now listed on a government Web site — has done little to slow the extortion calls. Nearly all the calls are from cellphones, most of them stolen, authorities say.
On top of that, many extortionists are believed to be pulling off the scams from prisons.
Authorities say hundreds of different criminal gangs are engaged in various telephone scams. Besides the false kidnappings, callers falsely tell people they have won cars or money. Sometimes, people are told to turn off their cellphones for an hour so the service can be repaired; then, relatives are called and told that the cellphone’s owner has been kidnapped. Ransom demands have even been made by text message.
No money changed hands in her case, but in many instances — as many as a third of the calls, one study showed — the criminals make off with some valuables. One estimate put the take from telephone scams in Mexico in the last six months at 186.6 million pesos, nearly $20 million.