Reporting from Mexico City — 'We have your daughter."
Those chilling words, the worst nightmare of any parent, came over the telephone, spoken by a man planning to demand money for her safe return.
One catch: We have no daughter. So the call, for us, was easy enough to ignore. But thousands of Mexicans receive these calls every week. Sometimes they are real; a child or spouse or other relative has been kidnapped, and a ransom is demanded.
Often, they're bogus.
A cottage industry has exploded alongside the skyrocketing kidnapping rate in Mexico that could be called "extortion on spec": telephoned shakedowns that play on fears, in which the perpetrators scamming for pesos make random calls.
And as any cold-call telemarketer will tell you, dial long enough and someone will take the bait, whether it's magazine subscriptions, too-good-to-be-true mortgage rates . . . or a ransom demand.
These calls "provoke such terrible anguish and panic that many victims don't bother to check out the claim, and they fall for the trick," said Luis de la Barreda, director of the Citizens' Institute for the Study of Crime.
"It has been growing as a phenomenon because it works."
When our would-be extortionist called our home telephone, my husband answered. A weepy girl's voice (or, more probably, a woman feigning to be a girl) said, "Papi, papi, they've got me!"
Then a man came on to declare they had our "daughter." My husband said he didn't have a daughter, and the caller hung up.
Every Mexican seems to know someone who has had a similar thing happen. Sometimes these callers are so off base, as in our case, that they can be dismissed. A colleague received a threat saying his son had been kidnapped; he's the father of four girls.
Often, the call is close enough to instill terror, even when it's phony. Many Mexicans tell of late-night ransom calls when their kids are out on the town or at the movies; frantic, heart-stopping minutes pass until they reach their child by cellphone. Friends tell of a child walking into the house minutes before the money was to be paid. And still other people pay.
Usually, the caller demands an electronic transfer of money into an account. Sometimes the mark is asked to pay in person.
A recent report by the Ministry of Public Security said one of the most common forms of phone extortion is for the caller to pretend to represent one of the notorious drug gangs terrorizing Mexico, such as La Familia, based in the state of Michoacan, or the Zetas, a ruthless network of hired hit men.
In 2008, the last full year for which statistics are available, authorities received 50,138 formal complaints of various kinds of phone extortion. The figure is believed to be a small fraction of the number of actual frauds attempted and committed. Among those complainants, 4,587 people paid the demanded amount, the report said. In the first two months of last year, an additional 3,575 complaints were filed.
A team of suspected extortionists arrested in October allegedly telephoned the victim and told him they'd placed snipers outside his business and would begin picking off his family unless he paid $50,000. Often the caller says a relative in the United States has been taken hostage, figuring that's something that is harder to verify quickly.
The vast majority of the calls originate in Mexico's overcrowded prisons. One report by the official news agency Notimex said inmates and others were making about 500 calls a day using smuggled cellphones, of which 2% resulted in someone paying. And in a new, timely twist, callers have been telling marks to fork over money to get access to vaccines for swine flu, which has been infecting much of Mexico since last spring.
Although the number of extortion attempts has soared in the last five years, the good news, authorities say, is that the percentage of people who fall for the scam and pay is shrinking. Word of mouth and news reports have contributed to greater awareness and more people are tracking down their loved ones before paying ransoms.
De la Barreda's group tells people to ask basic questions of the caller to test the authenticity of the threat.
"This is a crime that requires no organization, no resources, no accomplices, just a little luck," he said. "It is an easy crime."