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Just hang up? Mexico fight against rising extortion may start with phone

The phone has become a prime weapon for extortion, a crime that now ranks second only to theft in Mexico.

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    Inmates speak on phones at the Topo Chico prison during a media tour in Monterrey, Mexico, on Feb. 17.
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One of the most memorable days in Vicki’s time as a housekeeper here in Mexico City revolved around the simple act of answering the phone.

On the other end of the line was the sound of a girl screaming and hysterically pleading for her mother’s help. Another female voice then cut in, telling Vicki she’d need to deposit thousands of pesos in a bank account if she wanted to see her daughter again.

“I just froze. I was terrified,” says Vicki, who asked that only her first name be published for security reasons. “But then all I could think was that I only have boys, so I said that, and I hung up the phone,” she says, shaking her head. Only then did it register that she’d answered the house phone, not her cellphone. The family she worked for had two daughters.

In the end, the girls were perfectly safe, in the car with their father on the way to school. The call Vicki received was a variation on an increasingly common tactic used by opportunistic criminals here to make relatively quick – and often large – sums of money by playing off of the public's fears of violence and crime.

Extortion has risen sharply in Mexico. Data from the most recent National Victimization Survey indicate that close to 8 million people subject to attempted extortions in 2014, and nearly 95 percent or those efforts were carried out over the phone. In Mexico City alone, the crime went up by about 42 percent between 2014 and 2015, according to the Mexico City-based nongovernmental organization Citizen Advice on Security. It’s now the most common crime in the country after theft, and can range from emotionally charged phone calls to cyber scams to face-to-face demands for money in exchange for “protection” of businesses or homes.

The causes are several. Analysts point to the proliferation of cellphones, for example, that provide a cheap and easy way to make threats – even from behind prison walls. Violence related to the war on drug cartels has made the threat of violent crime very credible to many people. 

Social behavior plays a role, too, says Hilda Torres, from the NGO Mexico United Against Crime (MUCD). Many people are “too accustomed to giving out personal information, to trusting strangers on the other end of a telephone,” she says.

An added factor: The risk of getting caught or charged with extortion is low.

But attention is starting to focus on helping citizens counter such crime, from better reporting of extortion attempts to improve the chances of a police investigation, to holding banks accountable for monitoring suspicious activity. One public outreach campaign tells citizens to just hang up the phone when they get a suspicious or threatening call, while a phone app is under way that tells a user when a number calling them has been reported for extortion.

“This [extortion] continues to work for criminals because people believe the threats,” says Ms. Torres. “We need to shift that culture.”

Simple techniques

Torres has a seemingly endless supply of sample extortion tactics. Someone calls to say they have a flower delivery but the address seems off. What is it again? Oh, and whom do I have the pleasure of talking to? If a name and address are given, the criminal can call back later with a much more specific threat.

“People freeze in fear. They know my name. They know where I live. This is real. I have to get them the money,” Torres explains.

“These [callers] are delinquents and they just want money quickly and easily. If you hang up, the person doesn’t call back. They don’t want to lose their time. They have plenty more numbers to call,” she says.

“We need to create the custom of not giving out personal information. This is a warm culture. But politeness [toward] anonymous people asking personal questions? Stop it,” Torres says.

Vicki says she tries to encourage her friends and family to "really keep in mind" that if they get a call like hers and the panic kicks in, that "It's not real. Your family is OK," she says. She says she is much more cautious about offering up any personal information about herself or her employers now. Her caution extends to innocuous requests like that from a caller who asked about a supposedly outstanding Internet bill under an unfamiliar name at her employer's address. 

Some groups are trying to help make it easier for citizens to know when it’s a good time to screen a call or hang up. The Citizen Advice on Security NGO, for example, launched the NoMásXT app ("no more extortion") last year that had a base of 100,000 cellphone, telephone booth, and home numbers reported for extortion. If one of those numbers call, it’s flagged by the app. A year after its launch, another 12,600 numbers were added to the database, in part because the app allows users to easily report extortion calls to a national database.

The need to expose the crime

A lack of reporting is a clear part of the problem, says Alejandro Hope, a security analyst in Mexico City.

“If people don’t report it, it’s very difficult to fight,” Mr. Hope says, a recurring problem for most crimes in a country where the impunity rates register as high as 94 percent. “And once [criminals] realized it is such an easy crime and that most of it goes unreported and … pretty much unpunished, you see a multiplication of the crime."

But there are more proactive steps officials could be taking as well. Hope points to the need for the types of banks used by extortionists to make it harder to open and close an account, something that typically requires limited identification and little time. 

Mexico could also try to establish something similar to the US Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (Rico), he notes. And although most extortion takes place by phone, there are still hundreds of thousands of cases of people showing up in person to someone’s business demanding money in exchange for protection from local gangs. Hope suggests setting up fake businesses overseen by authorities or panic buttons in legitimate storefronts that might make extorting in this manner too risky.

“Extortion is the easiest crime in Mexico,” says Hope. “We have to make [the criminals] work harder,” and these cases will go down.

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