When Tatiana Kaler answered the phone one year ago, she was speechless when the man on the other end claimed to have sequestered her mother. She had just woken up, alone in her house, and someone was demanding money in exchange for her mother's life.
Cooperating, she gave the man her cell phone number, which he immediately called, occupying both her house and personal phones. It was a picture perfect setup.
"I was scared because I had not seen my mother the night before and they just called me…and I was alone," said 24-year-old Kaler. "It seemed very strange but I believed it."
To save her mother's life, Kaler followed the kidnapper's instructions; she put a little more than $900 pesos in a bag and threw it over the apartment balcony. Once the criminals – there were actually two of them - had the money, both phones went dead.
Her mother, however, was not and had never been in any danger; she was just out of town. Kaler had been duped into believing that her mother had been kidnapped; she had become an unsuspecting victim of a fake kidnapping.
Secuestros virtuales – as they are known in castellano - are not uncommon in Buenos Aires, or Argentina for that matter. They have occurred in every barrio and at least one is reported every 24 hours, according to a June 2008 La Nación article.
First appearing in 2003, this type of crime was more or less an isolated incident; prisoners would call people from jail pretending to have kidnapped a loved one in the hopes of obtaining credit for their prepaid phones. But in the ensuing years, the incidents began escalating in their severity and prisoners were no longer the only ones calling.
The fake kidnappings seem to be successful due to the prevalence of real kidnappings in history, according to Kaler. With the military dictatorship of the 1980s and the economic crisis causing an increase in crime, the stigma from kidnappings has remained intact. This could be a possible reason why the secuestro virtual trend has increased over the last 7 years.
As foreigners in this country, it is important to know that although these incidents are common, there is truly nothing to worry about. It is a good idea to be prepared and recognize the clues, however, since the entire scam is based off of personal information.
Similar to Kaler's incident, these crimes normally occur over the phone and involve two or more people. The perpetrators will call a place of residence – either planned or randomly chosen – and pretend to be the police. Claiming that an accident involving a person of that particular residence has occurred, the criminals will ask such "clarification" questions as home address, cell phone numbers and the names of the people presently absent from the house in order to obtain information.
These questions will be asked very rapidly and if answered will initiate the fake kidnapping scenario. From there, according to official sources, the voice on the phone switches tone and the story changes. It is no longer "the police" calling; suddenly it is a captor claiming to have the person presently missing from the residence. Suddenly, a ransom is being demanded. Although this shift in personality is sudden, it is unfortunately believable as the initial shock of an accident occurring to a loved one has yet to settle.
What to do
If this scenario does occur, police recommend hanging up the phone immediately. Although it sounds unnerving, severing communication is the best thing to do in order to verify the validity of the incident. If they actually have the person, they will call back.
Police also recommend trying to communicate with the supposed victim as soon as possible using a cellular telephone. In Kaler's situation, they demanded her cell phone number so that they could occupy the line, disabling her from contacting her mother or father directly. Plus, if communication is reached with the victim in question, the fake kidnapping scenario will lose all merit.
Since the success of these crimes relies entirely on the exchange of key personal details within the first few minutes, the final tip is to never, ever give out personal information to strangers, on or off the phone. While this recommendation should seem like common sense, everyone should be wary of providing information to any unknown person, even somebody who claims to be conducting a survey.
At the movies
A similar instance occurred in the Cine Gaumont in Congreso, according to a December 2007 Clarin article. Two men claiming to offer a new credit card with special shopping discounts approached a young man waiting in line for a movie. They asked specific, personal information such as his name, home address, phone number and favorite soccer team.
When the man entered the movie theater and turned off his phone - so as to not disturb anyone during the feature presentation - the "kidnappers" sprung into action and called his mother, using the information they acquired to make the scenario as believable as possible.
His mother tried to contact him, but was unsuccessful since the phone was turned off.
Therefore, she believed the criminals and cooperated with their demands, putting money in a bag and waiting for a man on a motorcycle to come pick it up.
This incident may have been rare and one that contained very specific circumstances, but it is important to be aware of the measures these criminals will take. Keeping abreast of the history and current trends of crime in Argentina is not just important for a foreigner; it is essential for everyone. And it's a good idea to always do your best to make yourself reachable…even if it means putting your cell phone on vibrate – not silent – when in the Movie Theater.
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