A new report claims the success rate of phone extortion is dropping in Mexico, but the fluid nature of this crime makes it difficult to prove.
Between 2013 and 2019, the number of businesses in Mexico receiving such extortion calls increased by nearly 22 percent, but total payouts diminished by over 15 percent, according to a recently published investigation by Mexico Evalúa, one of Mexico's leading public policy think tanks.
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With a focus on the northern state of Baja California, the report looks at why the frequency of phone extortions has continued to rise at the same time that their success rate has seen a consistent drop.
Amid this context, Baja California ranked as the state with the fourth-highest level of extortion in the country, but with a success rate of just 6 percent.
Extortion attempts by phone often see business owners threatened by criminals, who demand payments of between 500 to 10,000 pesos ($24 to $480), the head of a Tijuana-based business association told El Universal. These schemes often involve revealing sensitive information and intimate details of recent activities to create the illusion that the victims were being followed.
InSight Crime Analysis
One of the longstanding criminal economies in Latin America, phone extortion may be seeing a drop in its effectiveness – a change that could be due to several factors.
Mexico Evalúa notes the difficulty of accurately measuring the success rates of phone extortion, given the relatively anonymous nature of the crime. Authorities readily acknowledge that the number of victims may be far higher, since reporting this crime remains infrequent. Additionally, the percentage of victims paying up has long been pretty low, as those behind the extortion attempts, often prisoners calling from inside jail, make millions of such phone calls a year. One 2018 study showed that 3.7 million extortion calls had been made from just seven prisons.
The government has taken steps to reduce this type of extortion by simply blocking cell phone signals around Mexican prisons.
The public's awareness of how phone extortion schemes work may also explain the drop in the success rate. Traditionally, calls to victims involved threats of physical harm or kidnapping, but the Mexican government, and others around the region, have carried out prolonged media campaigns to raise awareness regarding extortion threats and how to report them.
Extorters, however, are changing tactics. According to authorities in Baja California, the threat of physical harm to business owners is being replaced by the threat of spreading fake news online about their company – most often by publishing false information about the businesses on a website called Noticias de México until victims give in and pay.
Authorities have also had some success going after the bank accounts used for these crimes. Mexico’s state Financial Intelligence Unit (Unidad de Inteligencia Financiera - UIF), which traditionally seizes bank accounts used for money laundering and drug trafficking, has made it a priority to track bank accounts used to receive money from extortion victims.
The strategy, though, may have spurred a new extortion scheme, which sees the criminals posing as UIF officials to try and obtain sensitive financial information used to extort victims.
While the success rate of extortion calls may be declining, Mexico's citizens will continue to be plagued by criminal gangs seeking ransom or extortion payments via unregistered cellphone numbers. The number of such calls has climbed rapidly, with nationwide earnings from this crime now estimated at over $500 million a year.