"We're watching your house, your wife, and your kids," a calm but menacing voice told the journalist, a Venezuelan working with InSight Crime. “I know you don’t have much money. But you should send what you can.”
The voice on the phone was unnerving, but the details of the attempted shakedown did not add up.
The would-be extortionist said to send the payment to a Venezuelan bank account, which the area’s real extortion gangs almost never do. And he claimed to be working for the Meleán, a once-powerful gang that has now largely disappeared.
The journalist decided to test his caller. “What address are you watching, then?” he asked.
Rather than answer, the caller hung up.
This kind of scam has become common in Venezuela, where individual fraudsters profit by emulating the genuine threats posed by the country’s ever-expanding criminal groups.
The difficulty of distinguishing real extortion threats from empty ones forces Venezuelans pay double for their country’s insecurity.
Scam extortion calls, like the one received by the journalist, are the most common form of criminal impersonation, according to an analysis of Venezuelan news media and interviews with knowledgable sources.
Scammers target both local businesses and individuals, and they appropriate the names of headline-grabbing groups, like the Wilexis and El Koki gangs, to scare people into paying. They usually call or message their victims from out of state, often from prison.
These scam calls are mixed with real extortion threats, victims told InSight Crime. So, those most targeted, such as business owners, have developed a set of guidelines to weed out the fakes.
The call to the journalist featured two of the most common warning signs: using a Venezuelan bank account and imitating a group that is no longer active or is not present in the area. Most real extortion gangs collect money in cash, foreign bank transfers, or the US-based payment platform, Zelle. (Zelle told InSight Crime that its user agreements prohibit using the app for illegal activity.)
But vagueness is the most obvious sign of a scammer, according to businessowners, community leaders, and others with experience of extortion calls. The imprecise descriptions and threats typically given by scammers contrast with the careful preparation real extortion gangs put into researching a target and analyzing how to pressure them.
“The [real extortionist] callers know so much about you, that you know someone in your inner circle -- a cousin, a friend, an employee -- sold you out,” a business owner and community leader from Zulia, who asked not to be identified, told InSight Crime.
Not all fake extortionists pose as gang members, however. In multiple recent cases, scammers have impersonated Venezuelan authorities, capitalizing on the fact that officials often run their own extortion schemes.
Last year, two men posing as officials from the local prosecutor’s office attempted to extort the owner of a Caracas gas station. More recently, a scammer, working with corrupt police officials, allegedly extorted businesses and Venezuelans with warrants out for their arrest.
In both cases, the scammers’ disguise was complete with false identification. Over the past year, Venezuelan authorities have dismantled at least two networks dedicated to illegally selling police and military uniforms, which can be used in similar schemes.
Expanding Scam Horizon
While extortion is by far the most popular crime for scammers to emulate, they have also begun imitating other organized crime networks.
Some choose predatory groups, such as the kidnapping rings that have long terrorized Venezuelans.
Recently, a young crypto-broker faked his own kidnapping as part of a scheme to steal more than $1 million worth of cryptocurrency. He relied on the growing number of Venezuelan gangs that demand ransom payments in cryptocurrency to give him an air of believability.
Other scammers have gone a different route, imitating the criminal networks that desperate Venezuelans turn to for help, primarily, migrant smugglers.
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As Venezuelan migration flows have expanded north to countries with strict border policies, human smuggling scams have exploded. Fraudsters pose as migrant smugglers to target would-be migrants, advertising on social media, demanding payment upfront, and disappearing once the money -- sometimes thousands of dollars -- is paid.
One Venezuelan, whose family migrated using human smugglers, told InSight Crime that many people have been scammed in this way.
“You check with other people now ... ‘Did it work for you? Ah good, well I’ll pay, too, then,’” said the man, who asked to remain anonymous for legal reasons.
Corruption, Insecurity Sustain Scams
Venezuelan scammers rely on the country’s extreme levels of insecurity and the population’s distrust of police in order to sustain the fraudulent criminal world that runs parallel to the real one.
The near-constant threat of violent crime creates an atmosphere of fear and lends credibility to scammers. Few victims are willing to risk not paying, even if they suspect their caller is a fraud because predatory organized crime and violence have become so common.
In 2022, Venezuela ranked first in mainland Latin America for homicides, in a large part due to predatory organized crime. Cases of extortion and associated kidnappings, murders, and grenade attacks have been on the rise since 2021, according to a report published by the Venezuelan Violence Observatory (Observatorio Venezolano de Violencia - OVV) at the end of 2022.
“People feel it's better to pay and keep their peace of mind,” the business leader told InSight Crime.
Widespread corruption among security officials exacerbates the problem. It gives scammers, like those who posed as government officials in Caracas, another avenue to pursue, while making victims of both real and empty extortion threats feel like they cannot go to authorities for help.
“People don’t report because they’re scared. They know well that the justice system is coopted,” the business leader told InSight Crime. “You might accidentally report to the wrong person and end up in even more trouble.”