Phone extortion is a scourge across Latin America. Any business or individual in the region is likely to face this threat, directly or indirectly. For many, these calls are an inconvenience but, with methods becoming more varied and personalized, they can become all too serious.

The usual method of scammers seeking to convince random targets that a loved one has been kidnapped remains popular. However, the ability to find out or buy personal and corporate data has given rise to new threats.

Grupo IRENA has advised dozens of clients across Latin America on how to avoid being targeted by such extortion attempts, how to deal with them when they do arise, and what steps to take in their aftermath. Our Emergency Hotline, Irena 24, is staffed 24/7 to help you deal with these threats and make you feel safe.

 

TOP TIPS FOR HANDLING PHONE EXTORTIONS

  • Just hang up – extortionists make hundreds of calls. Hanging up will most likely make them give up.
  • Don’t answer unknown calls – if someone really wants to reach you, they’ll call back.
  • Don’t trust your ears – that child crying is not your precious baby, it’s pre-recorded.
  • Don’t tell them anything – they will try to get info from you to make the scam seem real.
  • Don’t go alone – they may try and isolate you, making you easier to manipulate. Stay close to or contact someone who knows where you are.

MODUS OPERANDI

The foundations of any phone extortion remain the same : strike fear in the victim, rapidly gain useful information and ask for a quick ransom/payment.

The Mexican authorities term these crimes ‘virtual kidnapping’ because the majority continue to involve criminals telling the victim that a loved one has been kidnapped and that a ransom must immediately be paid to secure their release.

As the gangs involved make thousands of calls to snare victims, the lies have become more frustrated. The target may be told they are speaking to a family member who is in urgent need of money. They may pretend to be from a cartel looking for security money or even to be watching your house at the very time. This may sound terrifying but it is exceedingly unlikely to be true. Investigations have found that the majority of these scam calls came from inside Mexican prisons.

An another popular technique is to call wealthy private residences in the middle of the day, when a maid is likely to be at home alone. The criminal will then pose as the family’s lawyer or notary in urgent need of funds for a major transaction or contact. This has proved successful as maids/staff likely know where valuables are kept and may be scared of losing their job if they do not comply.

EXAMPLE FROM GRUPO IRENA CLIENT

Another popular technique is to call private residences in the middle of the day, when a maid or other employee may be alone at home. At the home of one of Grupo Irena’s clients, the criminal presented himself as being the family lawyer who needed emergency funds to make a significant contact. This proved effective because the housekeeper knew where the safe was and was afraid of losing her job. Fortunately, his employer arrived home on time and immediately hung up. This demonstrates the importance of making any member of your team / staff aware of these threats.

HOW TO FIGHT BACK

The variety of tactics employed and the success they generate has led to an explosion of such crimes. In 2017, Mexico saw 7.5 million phone extortion calls. This led the government to create a national hotline (*5533) and an app for victims to report them. However, this has not had great success with 93 percent of extortion calls going unreported. When asked why they did not report such crimes, Mexicans said they either saw it as a waste of time or had no faith in the authorities. With 4.4 percent of reported instances being solved, it is hard to deny they may have a point.

Therefore, it falls on individuals, families and businesses to protect themselves and their interests ahead of time :

When you get a call from an unknown number

  • JUST HANG UP ! Remember, extortion can only work if you engage with the criminal. The best way to avoid this is simple. Hang up and they will leave you alone.
  • Do not answer calls from unknown numbers on the first try (if somebody really wants to speak with you, they’ll call back). If you do answer, the minute you feel suspicious, hang up ! The vast majority of scammers will give up at this point.

If a conversation does start:

  • Information is power! Scammers are on a clock, they want to pick up on hints you give them to build up their story’s serious character
  • Don’t believe their lies: The criminals may play a recording of a woman or a child’s voice sounding scared. This is in the hope, for example, of making a distraught parent blurt out the name of their child. If you are worried about the whereabouts of your loved one, call them or a carer/teacher/co-workers immediately to locate them.
  • Truth can hide a lie : Many victims have fallen into an extortion scam because the criminals are in possession of some real information. Hearing an extortionist refer to you by name and knowing where you live is certainly scary. But, more than likely, they bought a database of names and addresses and are working their way down. They’re not targeting you personally.

Verbal pressure and tricks

  • Slow it down : As mentioned earlier, speed is everything to a scammer. They are highly skilled at parsing information, stating their ransom demand early and doing everything to make the person pay up. This includes not giving them an instant to breathe or think. Orders are barked out, demands are repeated, threats are made to keep the victim off-balance. Respond by asking detailed questions. Demand guarantees the loved one is safe. Ask questions only the allegedly kidnapped person might know.
  • Alert your family and friends : Again, it is highly unlikely that your child/spouse/parent/insert relative of choice has been kidnapped. However, to be on the safe side, when a call like this is ongoing, reach out to your network. This can make it more likely the person will be found, if they didn’t answer you, and also lets other people know what is happening.
  • Don’t go alone : It’s dangerous out there. When a victim engages with the criminal, a common tactic is to isolate the person. The person may be asked to leave their home or hotel, buy another mobile phone, deposit money at a bank, and will be threatened if they do not comply at once.
  • Ignore good cop/bad cop : To keep the victim off-balance, the extortionists may vary between direct threats, promising violence on the kidnapped person if a ransom is not paid, and cajoling, vowing all will be fine if demands are met.

How can Grupo IRENA help you ?

Grupo IRENA is here to help its clients deal with any extortion attempts. If you feel any doubt or concern during or after a phone extortion, call us immediately. We will carry out a detailed, methodical analysis of the event and guide you as to the best course of action. If you feel unsafe, we can also deploy a patrol car to provide security at your home and office.

 

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