The Venezuelan police have stepped in amid a spate of violent crimes caused by gang members pretending to sell cars online. The offer: people can use police stations to finalize transactions.
Douglas Rico, the head of Venezuela's criminal investigation unit (Cuerpo de Investigaciones Científicas, Penales y Criminalísticas – CICPC), wrote on Instagram that citizens could go to CICPC stations around the country to safely exchange products sold on Facebook Marketplace.
The reason for this intervention is that a full 70 percent of express kidnappings in the country originate through false vehicle sales on Marketplace, according to CICPC data from April 2021.
This is the latest in a series of attempts to reduce the number of such crimes. In late August, the CICPC set up 31 "prevention points for crimes linked to social media" nationwide and started a campaign to alert people about these types of scams.
The scheme is simple: Gangs post adverts for cars or motorcycles and arrange to meet with interested buyers, usually in an isolated place. Once the buyer arrives, they are robbed, or even kidnapped, with a heavy ransom demanded from their families. A number of these victims have been found dead.
In early August, five people were killed, including two army personnel, in just one week after being drawn in by vehicle adverts, according to Venezuelan media reports.
InSight Crime Analysis
The CICPC is reacting to a genuine threat but it is uncertain if the campaign can make a difference.
Most of these cases occur in and around the capital, Caracas, and the neighboring states of Vargas and Miranda. Express kidnappings and associated violence have become rampant in 2021, following a drop in 2020 due to COVID-19 lockdowns. Far more needs to be done than offering safe havens.
Venezuela's crippling economic crisis has made other criminal economies unviable and unprofitable. Street crime and muggings have gone down because people no longer carry cash with them, the Associated Press has reported. Many small-time gangs even struggle to afford ammunition.
But the increasing use of the US dollar has boosted the economy slightly and given Venezuelans a new way of buying products. The Marketplace scams have soared largely due to this trend, creating a condition where victims will definitely be carrying cash.
Kidnappers have even diversified their ransom demands, most commonly asking for payment in US dollars, but on occasion, in gold and even bitcoin.