As Mexico’s security situation has deteriorated, small-time criminals have attempted to take advantage of the chaos by claiming to be members of the most feared gangs and carrying out “virtual kidnappings” over the phone and Internet.

One recent “virtual kidnapping” began with a simple command.

“Don’t hang up!”

The man who’d answered the phone obeyed — his first mistake, some security analysts say.

“I am ‘Commander 25’ of the Zetas,” the assailant said, referring to Mexico’s most feared criminal gang. “We know where you live.”

The assailant then gave the man certain details about his home, his car and his family.

“In order for everyone to remain safe, we are asking for a contribution,” he added.

The Zetas are highly active in the region where the man lived. They extort small and large businesses. They kidnap regularly. The details the assailant gave were true, and the threat seemed real.

“Don’t hang up!” the assailant repeated.

He instructed the man to give him his cellular phone number, which the assailant then called. He told the man to get into his car and drive to the bank.

“When you talk to me in public you refer to me as ‘hermano’ (brother),” the assailant told him.

The assailant had the man take out 20,000 pesos (approximately $1,500) from an ATM and wire it into another account. Then the assailant instructed him to go to a local motel, check into a room and wait.

“One more thing,” the assailant said. “Give us your wife’s cellular phone.”

The frightened man complied, and the assailant called the wife from the same cell phone.

“Don’t hang up!” he said again, this time to the wife.

The assailant told the wife that he’d kidnapped her husband, and to prove it he conferenced the husband into the call.

“Hola, como estas?” the husband began innocently when he heard his wife’s voice, believing his ordeal was over, but the assailants cut him off.

They instructed the wife to get cash and wire it into the same account, before sending her to a different hotel.

“One more thing,” the assailant added once the wife was in the hotel. “Give us the cell phone of another family member or a friend.”

The wife, who had some training in these matters, gave them the telephone of her company’s security official who, after extracting as much information as he could by playing along with the ruse, ended the virtual kidnapping.

The Mexican government says there have been 24,000 reported cases of extortion since President Felipe Calderon took office in December 2006. Private security analysts and non-governmental organizations monitoring Mexico’s crime say that the real number of cases could be as much as 12 times higher.

Just how many of these cases enter into the realm of virtual kidnappings is not known either. The private security analyst who shared details of this case with InSight Crime on condition the names of the victims, the area where the crime took place and his name be withheld, said that they are seeing more of these cases than ever.

He said the crime takes no more than two men, a cellular phone and an Internet connection. The initial information about the family comes from simple Facebook and Google searches. The telephone number may come from the phone book or the Internet.

“They play a psychological game,” he added. “They touch sensitive buttons.”

That psychological game often includes details about the number of children a family has, the type of car they drive, and where they live, information that can be easily obtained via the web.·

According to a report by Steele, a private security consulting firm, some criminals will create a fake contest in order to obtain more detailed information. Steele said criminals have set up fictitious booths at malls and lured kids to fill out forms to “win” an X-box or an iPod. Steele added that these fake contests, usually organized around a raffle, lure adults into giving out information as well.

The assailants also pick specific times in which to call, normally during working hours when kids are at school and spouses or partners are at work.

Dealing with these calls is not easy and there is little consensus in the security world. Steele advises that the potential victim “keep the caller on the line” and note as many details as he or she can.

The security analyst who consulted with InSight Crime said the victim should simply hang up.

These plans are often easily foiled, the security analyst who spoke to InSight Crime added, before playing a recording of a telephone conversation between another assailant and his intended victim.

“Don’t hang up!” the assailant began, before stating that he was a Zeta commander.

“A who?” the woman who’d answered said.

“Comandante Zeta,” he repeated.

“No mames guey (don’t mess with me),” she responded, before breaking down laughing.

The ‘Zeta,’ realizing she’d called his bluff, then began pleading for money. The woman just kept laughing.

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Steven Dudley is the co-founder and co-director of InSight Crime and a senior research fellow at American University’s Center for Latin American and Latino Studies in Washington, DC. In 2020, Dudley...