A recording made by a journalist in Colombia of a phone call with prison based extortionists shows how these criminals sometimes use trickery rather than physical threats to convince victims to pay up.
On February 18, a man calling himself "Sergeant Diaz" of Colombia's national police phoned a family member of a Caracol Radio employee. He said the journalist had been arrested but had agreed to pay authorities in exchange for release without charges, reported Caracol.
The journalist himself called back, identifying himself as a cousin willing to pay the money. He made a deal with the extortionist for about $1,500 and provided the identification number for two people who he said would make the payments. When he requested to speak with the supposed detainee, Sergeant Diaz passed the phone to a sobbing man who pled, "Cousin, help me, please send the money quickly, the sergeant says you haven't transferred it, please help me."
With the help of Colombia's anti-kidnapping police (GAULA), the cell phone number used to place the call was traced to a Bogota prison, and the criminals were informed they were being monitored.
GAULA director General Humberto Guatibonza said 15 reports of such phone calls are received in Bogota every day. Prison extortionists use data from stolen phones and computers, as well as social networking sites, to gather information on potential victims.
InSight Crime Analysis
In the past, extortion in Colombia was largely the territory of major guerrilla and paramilitary groups who charged "taxes" on businesses, such as oil and mining operations. But recent years have seen the growth of "micro-extortion" targeting regular people become a key source of earnings for small-time criminals and street gangs in Colombia and throughout the region.
Many of these extortion operations are now conducted from prisons. The crime requires little more than access to a phone, and poor monitoring and corruption in the region's jails make these easy to obtain.
However, as shown in the present case, if inmates' do not have a criminal network to rely on to enforce threats, creativity and trickery are another method of gleaning money from victims.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of Extortion
To combat the problem in Colombia, General Guatibonza says the GUALA is examining legal measures to help better regulate money transfers. In Honduras, officials have begun blocking cell phone service in prisons, which they say has contributed to a 75 percent reduction in prison extortion.