Kidnap is virtual, but ransom is real

Latin American criminals use phones, fear.

Published May 25, 2007

MEXICO CITY - "Papa! Papa! Papa!" cried the voice on Rodolfo Melchor's cell phone. Then: "Honey, it's me, I've been kidnapped!"

The office machine repairman, on a break at work, dialed police and sprinted home, finding after the most harrowing 30 minutes of his life that his family was just fine.

Melchor had avoided falling victim to a "virtual kidnapping, " a scheme aimed at quickly extracting ransom without an actual abduction. The weapon used is not a gun or a knife, but a telephone.

Anyone with a telephone is at risk in Latin American countries including Mexico, Brazil, Argentina and Guatemala, where high crime rates lead people to think the worst when a supposed kidnapper calls.

"They make them believe they know everything they do, where their children study, where they work and all their daily movements, " said Guatemalan prison spokesman Nery Morales.

Reliable statistics don't exist because most police forces register virtual kidnappings as robberies or assaults. Many victims also don't come forward at all because police are often unresponsive, inept or corrupt. Some people fear revenge for going public, while others are embarrassed about falling for the hoax.

But anecdotal evidence suggests virtual kidnappings are big business. In the Brazilian state of Sao Paulo, police reported at least 3, 000 virtual kidnapping complaints between Jan. 1 and Feb. 14. A Mexican citizen's group used polling to estimate that in 2004, 36, 000 virtual kidnappings took place in the country. They haven't reported newer data.