Stories from the Calle
A man we’ll call Oswaldo was sitting in a restaurant with his friends early one afternoon when his cell phone rang. He took the call and a gruff voice told him that they were holding his cousin and would kill him if he didn’t deposit $50,000 MN to a bank account to be specified. Terrified, Oswaldo said nothing to anyone and dashed to the bank.
The bad guys called him while he was in the bank, and Oswaldo told them he didn’t have enough money. The extortionist told him to withdraw what he had, about $10,000 MN, and gave him an account number to deposit it into.
The teller, noticing how nervous Oswaldo was, called the manager, who took Oswaldo into his office and asked him what was wrong. Oswaldo told him, and the bank manager said they had seen this a number of times. Together, they monitored the account activity and it turned out the extortionist was so stupid he’d given Oswaldo a non-existent account number. By then, Oswaldo had reached his cousin who knew nothing about this. The money was returned to Oswaldo’s account.
Another man received a similar threat and immediately called the supposedly kidnapped family member who was alive and well (and free).
In another case, after receiving such a call, the victim could not reach the relative in question. It happened that neither her mother nor aunt knew where she was either, so the man went ahead, did what he was told, and left money for the supposed kidnappers. It turned out his relative was just fine.
In another anecdote, when the victim received the call, he exploded in anger, cursed the caller out and hung up. Turns out his relative too, was fine, and he never got another call. Of course, he is extolled as a model.
Sometimes these guys say they are Zetas (narco gang members). Sometimes they threaten decapitation. La gente of Merida, a generally gentle lot, are terrified by these calls. They’re not used to being conned, and especially in such a base and nasty way. Some of them pay and the con goes on.
Members of our expat community have received these calls as well.
According to police, if you get such a call, the important thing is not to show anxiety. Hang up, curse him out, slam the phone down. These criminals thrive on the fear of their victims and the phone calls are brutal and often persistently repetitive.
The hard part is knowing that there is a faint possibility it could be true. But usually there is nothing to it. I know, usually isn’t good enough.
Also, you’ll be happy to know that sophisticated identity theft has come to Yucatan. Beware of people requesting any kind of personal information from you. Unfortunately, north Americans are pretty wise to this crime and are not likely to give strangers information.
And once again, beware of the I’m So Thirsty – Please May I Have a Glass of Water trick. I was victim to this myself a year or so ago. A lovely young woman with a few missing teeth. I left her in the front hall while I went to get water, she went into a room, and I discovered later she’d taken my phone and some cash.
The financial crisis has hit on every level and con games are becoming more common. They don’t involve physical confrontation (i.e., they don’t require that the criminal have courage), they are often pulled off quickly and successfully, and victims tend not to call the police. The perpetrators are under the illusion that they’ll never be caught. In fact the police are focussing on the con games and have brought computer forensics specialists and other experts in to train our officers and to consult on some of the crimes.
The “virtual kidnappers,” as people are calling them, have to get your phone number from somewhere. You might consider limiting who you give your number to. And how freely you give out your personal card. Or leaving your number with a shop you don’t know well, or appearing on accessible lists, etc. I personally will no longer give my number out and say, Please Call When You Have Arugula (or corn meal tamales, or whole wheat flour, or mayo without lime, or an obscure car part). I will call them, or drop by, or forego the arugula altogether.
This stuff can be terrifying. It’s uniquely successful here in Mexico where there actually are so many kidnappings and in a city like Merida where the citizens are still so trusting. That openness and trust is one of the qualities that makes this a great place to live, and it is damnable that the dark side is taking advantage of it.
Forgive my rant.
Please note that all the specifics I have mentioned are street talk and may or may not be literally true.