‘Virtual Kidnappings’ Exploit Very Real Fears

(NY Times) - 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.

"This reflects the fear in Mexican society, the collective psychosis about kidnapping," said Adrienne Bard, an American radio journalist who has lived in Mexico for more than 20 years and who received a call in March from a crying young woman. Shocked, she thought it was her own college-age daughter.

"I totally fell into the trap," she said.

So have many others. 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.

Of the relatively few arrests made so far, three suspects were brothers, ages 19, 31 and 34, who were caught collecting money squeezed from a victim. The two younger brothers blamed their older sibling, who has been in and out of prison for years, of putting them up to it.

Besides the hot lines to report the calls, officials have called for cellphone companies to keep better records of users to help with investigations. But attempts to root out cellphones in prisons have not yet borne fruit. Such phones are not permitted inside penitentiaries, but inmates typically pay off guards to look the other way.

Local journalists recently visited a prison just north of Mexico City and found that cellphones were being used openly. Inmates estimated that 500 to 600 phones were being used at the prison and said the going rate to bribe the guards was $50 per week, the newspaper El Norte reported.

At that prison, authorities tried to block the cellular signal, but inmates apparently discovered certain places in the yard where the signal still reached.

Mexican authorities know full well the extent of the problem. Mr. Ortega, the police chief, received a call on his cellphone recently saying he had won nearly $50,000, if only he would hand over some money.

Last November, more than a dozen members of Mexico's Congress received calls saying that their children had been taken, prompting the legislature to suspend business for the day.

An investigation later indicated that the lawmakers were probably not specifically targeted but had been dialed on the same day because their phone numbers were consecutive.

Still, the fear that gripped the chamber was real. Security was tightened, and one lawmaker, Mirna Rincon, of the governing National Action Party, collapsed in her chair when she received the call saying her son had been grabbed. A photograph taken by the government news agency Notimex shows someone fanning her grief-stricken face.

As Graciela Villarreal, a Mexico City psychologist, said recently in an interview in the newspaper El Universal, those who receive the calls, whether the voice of the child sounds right or not, are naturally left thinking, "What if it is my child?"

She said some victims experience a form of Stockholm syndrome, actively cooperating with the criminal on the other end of the line and even disclosing valuables they could turn over, just in case the scam is not a scam.

Ms. Bard found herself filling a bag with valuables - a clear plastic bag, just as the man ordered. He wanted jewelry, particularly gold, and was disappointed when she told him that she had a Timex watch, not a Rolex.

He also told her the money she collected did not have to be in pesos. He would accept dollars and euros, as well. "When I picked up the phone, a girl was yelling, 'Mama!' " Ms. Bard said. "I thought it was my daughter, and I was telling her to calm down. All she said was 'Mama! Mama! They have me!' "

Eventually, she managed to reach her husband at the office, and he tracked down their daughter safe and sound in class at a local university. 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.

"You feel terror," Ms. Bard said. "If you think there's any chance that it's your child, you play along."

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