Brazil's latest creative contribution to crime comes from inside Brazilian prisons. It's the dial-a-kidnapping, a swindle in which an inmate sometimes in cahoots with someone outside the jail calls a victim telling they have kidnapped a child or a spouse and they might kill them in a few minutes if their demands are not met.
This con game and its variations have become so widespread and has caused so many victims some of them fatal – just last week 67-year-old Mércia Mendes de Barros from São Caetano do Sul, in the Greater São Paulo, died from a heart attack after receiving one such call – that the criminal practice landed this week in the cover of Brazil's most widely read weekly news publication, Veja magazine.
Veja calls the new variety of crime another evidence of the Brazilian government's ineptitude, showing its inability to stop illegal actions and crimes even inside prisons.
According to the weekly, the dial-a-kidnapping has become an epidemic. Just last year, close to 10,000 people from the capital cities of São Paulo, Rio, Belo Horizonte, Porto Alegre and Brasília, went to the police to report that they had been a victim of the sting.
It's believed however that there are at least four times more cases than those that were reported since many people don't even bother going to their police district.
In the case of the old lady who died, a man called her phone saying that he had abducted her son and threatened to kill him if she didn't pay 60,000 reais (US$ 29,000). While the husband went to the bank to withdraw the money the woman had a heart attack.
A neighbor who was helping her to negotiate with the fake kidnapper was able to contact the son on his cell phone and found out that it was all a hoax. But by then Barros was already dead.
"I had heard of this scam," said José Pereira de Barros, the husband, "but panic takes over when you get a call like this. We were attacked and assassinated in our own house – by phone."Â
The kidnapping scam started five years ago in the Carlos Tinoco da Fonseca penitentiary in Rio. In its original version people would receive a call from an inmate with the news that they had been awarded prizes like television and DVD sets. To get the award the lucky winner had to buy pre-paid minutes for cell phones and pass the caller the codes.
In those more innocent times the goal was only to keep the cell phones inside the prison cells working so prisoners could talk to their friends and relatives outside jail. Today, more than 90% of this kind of scam continue coming from prisons although by law inmates are not allowed to have phones.Â
According to Veja there are three main ways of scamming people with the dial-a-kidnapping.
In one of them, the scammer pretends to be a fireman or a highway patrol officer. He informs the victim that there was an accident and suggests that someone badly hurt may be the victim's relative.
At this point, the swindler knows nothing or very little about the victim and expects he or she will blurt something out due to psychological strain. When the victim says the name of a child or spouse the officer or fireman becomes a kidnapper who starts to threaten his target.
In another script, the inmate calls usually before dawn in order to hit the victim when he or she is still sleepy and not entirely conscious. "Mom," or "Dad," the voice says. "They caught me." In order to make sure that they are talking to the son, the parent will say something like: "Is that you, João?" That's when the caller or an accomplice announces that João has been kidnapped.
Still, in a third version, the con artist says that he has been hired by a victim's foe to kidnap and kill him (her). In this case the inmate works with someone outside jail who follows the person and learns about some of his habits and even his home address and the schools his/her children go to. The scammer then says that he will not kill the target if he pays a certain amount.
For more implausible that these stories might seem, 20.5% of those who received such calls ended up being swindled, according to a study from São Paulo's DEIC (Organized Crime Investigations Department).
Why do Brazilians fall so easily for these scams? Kidnappings have become routine in large cities like Rio and São Paulo. Although abductions and quicknappings, in which people are forced to withdraw money from an ATM machine at gunpoint,Â have fallen by 60% in São Paulo and 70% in Rio since 2002, they are still very common. Just last year, 1148 people were victims of a quicknapping and 62 others were taken into captivity in the city of São Paulo alone.
Another explanation has to do with the psychological torture inflicted by the con artists. They say they have caught a child or a spouse. As psychiatrist Eduardo Ferreira-Santos told Veja, "These are people with whom we have the most profound affective ties."
"The possibility of losing them makes people enter what we scientifically, call conscience field narrowing." Individuals faced with such a situation are immersed into a state similar to hypnosis.
Some of the techniques used by the swindler are to talk fast, to call in the middle of the night when people are sleeping with diminished capacity to think and ponder and to give the impression that he is not acting alone but with a group of other people.
Veja publishes de transcripts of several conversations between a con artist and his victims made by the police.Â
In one of them we can hear what undoubtedly is the voice of a man saying in tears: "Mom, I was robbed." The woman who answers the phone doesn't even notice this is a male voice and answers: "You've been robbed my daughter?" And then calls her by name. That's when the scammer gets to the script part in which he says that the daughter – and now he uses her name – will only be released after he gets what he wants.
A business man who fell for the scam told the magazine that he became so nervous when he got the call that he not only gave the con artist his daughter's name, but also his home address, his phone numbers and his cars models.