Crime In Merida: A Mean Con

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.

About BG

Beryl Gorbman is a writer and private investigator who divides her time between Seattle WA and Merida Yucatan Mexico. She has published two works of fiction, 2012: Deadly Awakening, and Madrugada. They are both available on Amazon and other outlets. Also at Amate Books, and Casa Catherwood in Merida. You can read about them in various articles on this site.
This entry was posted in General Blog, Merida Expat Life. Bookmark the permalink.

26 Responses to Crime In Merida: A Mean Con

  1. William says:

    Nope, it’s not just street talk. It is happening.

    Also beware of people calling from TelMex or banks; they may be regular annoying telemarketers or they maybe delinquents trying to glean personal information from you. Hang up on them all.

    Good you mention this, since so much info that is out there seems to be exclusively of the glowing, charming, Merida-is-perfect variety. Merida is far from perfect and you need to approach living here with your eyes wide open.

  2. Ilana says:

    Are you sure you’re not telling a New York story?

    I enjoy reading your stories.

    Ilana

  3. One Idea... says:

    “Hold on for a second, I just got this phone and it has a nifty recording feature… I record all my calls because I forget what is said… and I have to play it back to remember – so speak slowly and clearly”

  4. Vince Gricus says:

    Just found out this morning there is a scam going on here in Santiago. When my friend described the woman it sounded like the glass of water scam, she is described as looking as she may be a prostitute, She knock on door and ask to use the phone because her children needed a doctor. The gringo was not aware this went on in Merida and she lost 400 pesos and her credit card. I told her that there is crime here and the best thing to do, is not let them in!
    Peace,
    Vince

  5. Rainie says:

    Thanks for doing this much needed article…a great public service piece. My husband Roger and I were robbed by the glass of water trick preceeded by the I need a pen to write down the phone number of a house for sale. I can’t believe we fell for it. Also I have friends who received the “give me 50,000 or we’ll behead your family” trick. I know we all love Merida and most of these cons are virtual, but we do need to be aware. Please consider sending the article to Yucatan Living
    Rainie

  6. I know it sounds hard hearted but never let anyone in your home that you do not know. Trust me, they won’t be offended if you shut (and lock) the door, get the glass of water and then return.
    Of course, having a dog who barks and looks scary is a good thing too.
    My Yucatecan neighbor fell for the your son said he would lend me money scam.

    It goes like this “Hi, is your son home?”
    ” Oswaldo isn’t but Pedro is?”
    “Oswaldo, he said he would be here, He told me he’d lend me some money”.
    Then the perp calls “Oswaldo” on the phone, and tells the home owner “he says that if you give me the money, he’ll repay when he gets home”. Phone call conveniently cuts off then, no more credit oops…

    We also had someone come to our door when we were gone. They told La Muchacha that they were there to pick up some furniture. She is the suspicious type, and wanted to know who sent them and what furniture. They pointed vaguely down the street. Then they asked our last name saying “aren’t they the Phillips?”, she answered “It’s something foreign, I forget, but not that, Good bye”.

    Coincidentally the brand name on the lock on our door is Phillips, another reason not to put one of those cute Familia Phillips signs on your door.

    Yes, the serpent has once again found paradise.

    regards,
    Theresa

  7. Judy Rosenfeld says:

    Oy!

  8. Katie Brewer says:

    Really good article! Thanks for the heads up.

    Katie

  9. Jane says:

    Beryl, the exact same scams happen all the time in San Miguel, too, another “paradise.” And, of course we have robberies, too. (I was robbed in October.)

    Yes, the impact of the financial crisis is in full swing here. Revenue in most stores is down about 50%, and it’s rare that you can go into a crowded restaurant these days. In most instances, you are only one of four or six customers.

  10. Jonna says:

    The virtual kidnapping has been happening over in QRoo, Cancun and Playa, for maybe 2 years. Often there are the screams of a girl or a child in the background, crying and screaming ‘ayudame’. It’s unnerving to say the least, even when you know it is not who they say it is.

    I’m sorry it is happening in Merida as well, although I’m not surprised. Good for you for publicizing it, hopefully you will prevent someone else being victimized. Most that I have heard about were in Spanish and I did see articles on it in the Diario but there have been a few over in Cancun that were in English.

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  12. Excellent article with an implicit lesson we could all learn from..

    I have just returned from a trip to India to find out that my home had been burglarized. The burglars were so primitive that they stole banal things such as toothpaste (unbelievable!!) but the ignored silverware and the like..

  13. Itsme! says:

    Comment:
    You are a great writer Beryl… I’m sure people read all the way to the end because you parlayed important information in an entertaining way. But people do not be fooled! These SOBs sound mean but actually they are big fat cowards hiding behind the telephone. Merida IS a wonderful place… Let’s keep it this way. If they don’t score, they’ll move on. Should you get a call… My sympathies … BUT… don’t cave – hang up and call the police. They WILL help you. Trust them! This is coming from someone who’s been there… done that!

  14. emily says:

    Love reading your blog, I usually learn something interesting stuff.
    Emily RandallHusky Training

  15. Malinche says:

    t is nice to see some truths being written as opposed to the pollyana variety at websites disguised as Yucatan lifestyles for expats, when in actuality they are trumpeting their own gringo-oriented businesses. I am not writing to abet fear mongering, and I know too often that becomes the case with crime in Mexico.
    It makes sense that Merida would ultimately be squeezed by the surrounding narco violence. Why is it never mentioned that the decapitated men found there had Maya names? It seems obvious to me tht they were recruited from the region. I also don’t believe the whole “narco families live here” theory, as an explanation of why there is a violence hands-off policy here among th cartels.
    They say the same things in here in Guadalajara, but there are signs of escalation here. Also, with Guatemala becoming increasingly narco oriented, that puts on further pressure on southern mexico.
    I know historical data has kidnappings in Yucatan as nearly non-existent, but what happens if just one person is abducted? That would be an incredible blow to confidence and stability.
    I’ve spent lots of time in Merida, and personally have ZERO fear walking the city. I am also from a large city myself, but there just seems to be a large amount of risk in Merida that is not easily measured and makes me think twice about buying real estate there. The concept of buying the blood in the streets is nearly literal in this case. I would rather wait til the trumpets at least blare quietly before making such a commitment.
    There are an amazing number of barriers and pitfalls to living in Mexico, and I am tired of websites ( i have one in mind, but won’t mention) extolling only virtues without at least weighing the case for the violence that surrounds Merida. The narcos move where they wish, and their presence in areas surrounding Merida only raises the question of why they are treating Merida in more of a laissez-faire manner.
    I had intentions of moving to Merida as well, but there are just too many moving parts right now. I appreciate hearing from those living there who are willing to speak the truth.
    I am ardently supportive of Mexico, having lived in various parts on and off for many years, but I am realistic with regards to the tremendous pressures they face not only from the cartels. The financial crisis is still weighing heavily upon the world obviously, and that would be enought to deal with aside from the political/narco strife. Now adding in the decreased production of Pemex which accounts for a large percentage of income, and you can see what a difficult set of issues they face. That said, there is solid precedent in Mexico’s history of dealing with narco activity, and the government, in my view, is gathering its forces as it did successfully in the 80s. I am really excited about Latin America in general over the coming decade, and growth there will continue to be spectacular once the narco violence gets under control along with the eventual resolution of the sovereign debt crisis in europe and the Euro. Interesting times to say the least!

  16. Tommy says:

    I live in Merida, and had my wallet robbed. The wallet had a lot of personal information (photos and names of children, wife, work info) and an ATM card, as well as a good load of cash and possibly a written address and phone. There were also some doctor’s receipts and a couple of lottery tickets, a Soriana points cars, a student id, and some other minor things. It did include, however, withdrawal slips that would have showed a substantial balance. I am hoping this does not increase the chance of facing extortion/kidnapping in the future.

  17. Ed says:

    I have been planning on moving to Merida in a few years and have tried to look up information regarding crime in the city but (don’t know if it’s a good or bad thing) I can’t really seem to find anything everyone just seems to say it is a very peaceful city with almost nonexistent crime. I know Merida is going to be like every other major city in the world and have some sort of problems here and there but just wondering if there are actually any mayor crime/violence related problems in the city that anyone has had to deal with or heard about. Because if it is just petty crime like stealing wallets or the phone call thing that is not too big of an issue with me. I actually had something similar to that done to me several times here in the states. First it was someone supposedly calling from a prison and they asking me to accept their call and pay for it using my credit card or through a bank account quickly did some research and found out this was a scam. Happened again someone supposedly calling from a prison but this time in the background you could hear the voice of a young male screaming help me! get me out of here! and again did some research and found out it was a scam.

    • BG says:

      It is actually true. There is much folklore as for the reasons, but there isn’t much crime in Merida. There are gangs in the southern part of the city. I don’t know what they are doing. The drug problem that haunts many cities in the country has so far been kept out, due, I imagine, to massive law enforcement efforts that we don’t hear about. Actually, there is bad stuff going on in Cancun, a four-hour drive away.
      I have heard of strong-arm entry into homes with accompanying robberies. I know there are a lot of home burglaries, usually when no one is home.
      There are numerous unsophisticated con games.
      I think people from wealthy Mexican families are kidnapped and ransomed, but it is not in the newspaper. I do see uniformed police outside of nursery schools sometimes.
      But I can still walk home from downtown alone, after 25 years. This is something I wouldn’t do in the US, even in friendly Seattle where I live p/t.

  18. C.S. Phipps says:

    I have only lived in Merida for a couple of months now and honestly I feel completely comfortable living here. I decided to purchase my home in a central neighborhood that caters to wealthier nationals rather than expats due to the additional security as well as a stronger hand when it comes to homeless and poverty stricken people. The city is great, wonderful to walk, very nice restaurants and a strong community. This is not a place that you’ll find a Starbucks, Louis Vuitton or Hermes, but rather a well preserved active city that has a strong character. I recommend Merida to anyone who is open minded, energetic and looking to truly enjoy the culture, not to mask the Mexican lifestyle with frozen drinks and gringo mentalities.

    • BG says:

      Hey! We have Starbucks!

    • J Penn says:

      Which neighbourhoods are good? which area do the “wealthier nationals” live and where do “highend expats” live? as for crime I can assure you that community needs to be educated to deal with criminals collectively because crime is everywhere however the areas that have less crime are the ones that residents keep an eye on everything that goes on and that fact alone sends the criminals packing…My husband wants to move us all to Merida and i’m not opposed to it but all i find is “merida is great or/and safe” which i know it can not be true…so how about people that live there let us know honestly the issues facing Merida today. Thx

      • BG says:

        It is actually true that there is less crime in Merida than just about anywhere else in Mexico, although no one can know how long that will last. What we encounter in the neighborhoods is not so much violent crime as people breaking in when we aren’t home. The violent crime is not generally in the upper end residential neighborhoods. the biggest problem we are faced with is the drug cartels and how long our local police can protect us. they are doing a good job right now, but they are not doing a good job in Cancun. Even with what is going on in Cancun, it doesn’t hold a candle to LA or chicago, where it is far more dangerous.
        There are certain things i won’t do – like drive in the northern part of the country. But I do feel comfortable walking around town at night by myself, something I can’t say for my home town of Seattle.

  19. J Penn says:

    Also please let me know about high end restaurants (Italian/French/mexican)….
    There is nothing wrong with Merida to promote itself for the wealthy from around the world as we all know people make their money in cold places but they want to go and rest somewhere sunny,pool,cocktails and clean areas….Mexico has everything that god could have given to one single nation and its time mexicans started cultivating that fact instead of this backwater style crimes and catering to backpackers that has made mexico comparable to some of the worst places on earth in every wealth nations eyes

    • BG says:

      You have a very wrong perception of Mexico. Merida, for instance, has more millionaires per capita than any city in the country. There are houses here that make wealthy suburban homes in the USA look like shacks. There are dealerships for BMW, Mercedes, Jaguar and other luxury cars. The malls have the best shops. I don’t know where you get your idea about backpackers and bad environments. Been in LA lately? How about Miami? I’d sure rather be here than South Beach Miami where there was a street shoot-0ut the other night among gang factions. And that is a very high-end area. Your comments are not well researched.

  20. Kinbote says:

    J Penn: Tell your husband to keep you in the United States. We have enough ignorant racist gringos living here.

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