I’m in Mexico on business — I travel a bit. I also consider myself generally savvy and aware of scams. I knew about virtual kidnapping and all that, but I’ll admit that my asleep brain fell for this for just a little bit. I hadn’t seen this before, so I thought I’d share.
I got a phone call on my room phone in my hotel late last night, when I was already asleep asking if I knew a person by the name of X. I do actually know someone by that name, but it is a very, very common name. I was sleep-addled, so this first conversation didn’t quite register with me and I accepted the call. X came on the line and then proceeded to tell me that he was a member of cartel Y (a real cartel, by the way) and that they were going through the building because some head guy of another cartel was there and they were going to murder him. Did I understand? He’s downstairs at the front desk, and there is going to be trouble.
I should have immediately hung up, but my mind was not fully awake, and I’m in Mexico, so this was not necessarily entirely 100% unbelievable. I’m in a particularly violence-prone region of Mexico, after all, and that’s saying a lot. If I wanted to live, he told me, I would need to follow instructions to the letter. First, as they are going through the building, keep my door locked and do not go outside because there are big bad men with big guns about. Then some questions about who I am and why I’m here — I did not provide detail, and he got kind of pissed off, but I could play it off as not fully understanding his questions. Meanwhile, I’m thinking that this could be a scam, but then again, who knows and WTF?
I’m told I need to keep the hotel phone off the hook and transfer to a mobile number. I made a huge mistake in giving them that, because I was still just not quite certain what was going on and frankly, a little nervous about the whole thing. We transfer to mobile, and I have to answer a succession of calls. Of course, questions are: do you have any other phones? Laptop? Turn it all off and stay on the line if you want to stay alive. Obviously, in retrospect, this is about isolation.
I’m told I cannot stay at this hotel. I have to get dressed, grab whatever cash I have, any medications I need, my glasses and other necessaries, my phone charger and put them all together, because I need to move to another hotel about two blocks away. Right next to the hotel, I’m supposed to buy a new prepaid cellphone with a Mexican number. The people at the hotel (front desk) don’t want any trouble, so don’t play games with us, because we’re going to kill you if you so much as stop there. Don’t run, walk calmly. Just make your way out the door, get the phone, we’ll be waiting at the store next door, and then you’ll go to the new hotel. That hotel, by the way, is a real hotel.
I’m told to start making my way downstairs. In passing the front-desk, I’m supposed to lower the phone but keep it on — never hang up — and absolutely never make contact with the people at the front-desk. After all, they don’t want any trouble. Make any mistakes and you’re dead. I take the stairs, not the elevator, because I’m looking for a way out. In my mind, there are two possibilities: 1) this is a scam that I do not understand, or 2) this is real, in which case the absolute very last thing I am ever going to do is hand myself over willingly to some self-professed cartel dude. On my way down, I look for possible exits. At the bottom of the stairs, there is an area where you cannot be seen from outside, but the front-desk can see you. I stop there to think about my options. It’s next to the kitchen, and I am considering disappearing in there.
I can now see the front-desk. The young woman who mans the desk does not look at all like someone beset by cartel Y dudes roaming about the hotel. I gesture for her to come over, which she does. I cover the microphone on the my phone (at least, I think I did) and tell her what’s going on and ask for help. “Hang up,” she says. “It’s a scam.” I’m a little shaken and she gets me a drink to help calm me down. I am a mixture of embarrassed, relieved, and agitated. She calls the security guard over and shows me the cameras they have all over the place and tells me it’s quite safe, and she then explains to me how this is supposed to work. Once I calm down and get back up to my room, I am still a little agitated, so I look this up online and find some additional information (included below).
Here’s how the scheme is supposed to work. 1) they isolate you by keeping you on the line and making you shut off any other devices; 2) they get you to get a new prepaid phone (preloaded with exactly 50 pesos, which will last a while; 2) then, you are directed to your new (real hotel). There is never an actual meeting with anyone, they just keep you on the line. 3) They make you get rid of the sim card in your regular phone — to disable any kind of GPS tracking; 4) they set you up in the new, very real, hotel nearby, and keep you on the line there; 5) They get you to engage in a skype conversation on the new phone, so they have pictures of you. At this point, you are completely isolated. In a new room, where you are threatened with death if you step outside the door. You cannot be reached by anyone but them, because only they have your new number. That is where stage 6) starts: now they call your family and tell them that you have been kidnapped and that they will start cutting off fingers if money is not paid very quickly. They have your pictures to prove it, and you are not only incommunicado but also not to be found in your hotel room.
It’s a virtual kidnapping that eliminates the chance of your family reaching you to find out you’re okay. Assholes.