Friday, October 5, 2007

Small Time Crooks (true story)

Oh what a tangled web we weave,
When first we practise to deceive!

Marmion. Canto vi. Stanza 17.
Sir Walter Scott

It was a warm sunny beautiful day. I was walking my daughter to school and my cell phone rings...

caller: Is this number 15-1234-1234?
me: yeah, who´s this? (I flinch a little knowing I just goofed up confirming my phone number to a complete stranger)

caller: we have a relative of yours in the trunk of our car. If you want to see him again you have to do as I say. You got that?
me: relative? who?

caller: did you not understand? You have to do what I say.
me: okay, what do you want me to do?

Mind you the whole time I am very calm, almost as if I am talking about work with an employee or something similar.

caller: I mean it. We will hurt him and you wont see him again in one piece!
me: um... I am still waiting for you to tell me what you want me to do.

This guy hands me off to his partner. I can just imagine him throwing his hands in the air and cursing at me. At the sound of the second guys voice I am actually smiling now.

2caller: I need to clarify that you understand that we have a relative of yours and that you need to do what we tell you.
me: your friend has told me that already. Can you please tell me what you want me to do?

I reach the school and ask the guys to hold a second while I kiss the teacher hello and kiss my child. This leads the second guy to hand me back to the first guy. I am now free from my child so I can actually enjoy this a little more.

caller: (some swearing) I don't know if you understand?
me interrupting: let me guess, I have to do what you tell me?
caller: yes! (more swearing)

he takes a breather and there is an awkward silence moment on the phone.
caller: you need to go to a cyber cafe (internet cafe).
me: anyone will do?
caller: (I imagine him rolling his eyes) No! Where are you right now?
me: I am outside. I don't know the area too well so I can't really help you. Maybe if you tell me where you want me to go we can get this over with faster. Oh, there is a cop. I can ask him for directions.
caller: (swearing) No! (more swearing and threats).

and obviously telling me that it would be a bad idea for me to go to the cops. At this point I tell them that they need a little more practice and hang up.

I don´t know why I picked up on that fact that they were lying. For those of you from the States and elsewhere. It is fairly common for people to call you (sometimes from prison) and lead you to believe that they have kidnapped a loved one. They then pressure you into acting quickly to save your loved one´s life by going to a drop off with money. They take it, walk away and nothing else happens. You eventually find out that your loved one was just going about their day. I haven´t been called since then, and if they ever do I hope to keep my head about me once again.

Virtual Kidnappings: Taking advantage of Panic

Virtual Kidnapping on the Rise in Latin America

The following was a link to yet another occurrence that was sent into La Nación. This one was sent to me via e-mail.

Pésimo momento. Inflación. "No es tan alta". ¿No aprenden?. Seguridad vial. Policía eficiente. Anestesia. Burladores burlados. Los colas en los bancos. Subte aventura. Abogada. Agradecimiento | Opinión | Jueves 11 de octubre de 2007


Diva said...

Oh! that sucks! thank god that these guy had absolutly no idea of what they were doing. Sometimes they take the time to do a research and they actually know the name of the person they are virtually kidnapping. Thank god that this Á.. H... were clueless

Unknown said...

Hi Diva,

I know. I just can't imagine the feeling of receiving a phone call loaded with details of your loved one. This episode though prompted us to talk about the possibility of this happening again and we have talked about what we should do. I still don't know how we would react but at least we are not 100% ignorant of this practice.

Yanqui Mike actually jogged this event from my memory. Apparently this just happened to another expat that he knew. His recent story reminded me of my phone call from a couple of years back.

Anonymous said...

I know the subject is not funny and all, but I had a good laugh reading through that conversation you had on the phone. Sounds like real life comedy.
If that happened to me, I could actually afford to burst out laughing on the phone straight away - if somebody manages to kidnap a family member of mine they know more about my family than I ;)

tangocherie said...

Oh Frank, here it's so the "Land of the Never Dull!"
Thank goodness it was a scam.
Take care.

Anonymous said...

Good history. Take care.

Anonymous said...

Frank, very interesting. I've heard this is a popular scheme. Glad to hear that everything is good!

Unknown said...

Hi guys,

Thanks for your comments! Coog I am very glad that we can laugh at it today, believe me. For a while after the phone call I just kept thinking "what if it was real?". I mean not that phone call because they were complete idiots but what if it ended up happening for real.

Cherie, you can say that again. I have another idea for a post about how unboring it is to live here.

BA me duele... thanks!

Rob, me too buddy. Not only is it popular it works too. If you ever meet up with Yanqui Mike ask him to tell you the story of the expat that got taken by this scam. It is not a fun thing to go through.

Anonymous said...

Lucky you, Frank. A week ago, my girlfriend and I left Argentina after over a year living there (with no intention of returning to the States), after this exact same thing happened to me. I told Yanqui Mike the whole story. The difference was, my girlfriend was at the gym without her cell phone, my Spanish is only mediocre, and they provided enough details about what she had with her that I thought -- I was certain they had her. What happened after that was the most horrible, f*cked up traumatic three hours of my life, starting with me having "7 minutes to get to an ATM and back or they'll put a .45 in the bitch's head"...three ATMs later (the first two were out of money, I'm screaming and swearing), I dropped the money off the balcony on Arce. Then I had to hand off my laptop and camera to a girl in a taxi. After another money drop, they hung up on me, and she still wasn't home, even though she should have been. I thought she was dead. I mean; I was retching on the floor. There was no number to call. My friend came over to help, an hour went by; I went downstairs to let him out so he could check at the gym and go to the embassy, I was still hoping the phone would ring; and my girlfriend walks up to the door having no idea what had just happened. I mean, I was hysterical. I'm still not alright. I drank a half a fifth of rum in a half hour and couldn't get drunk. I said -- I love this country but that's it, next time it'll be real. I booked a ticket to another country we were talking about moving to; we closed the shutters and stayed in, and we were on a plane to the US thirty-six hours later. We had just paid the month's rent. I let it all go.
Still trying to recover. I wish I hadn't fallen for it, y'know? But what the hell are you gonna do...they say they got her, you believe them; there's no way to get in touch and they say if you hang up they'll kill her, if you talk to anyone on your way to the ATM they'll kill her (I ran up to the ATM and screamed "SHIT" in English b/c the line was five people long, and this nice kid started talking to me in English and let me in front of him -- and I was so goddamn scared that I didn't speak to him when he was trying to be nice...I feel worst about that). I'll tell ya, this kind of thing is mentally scarring...I'm still just trying to get a handle on myself.

Unknown said...

Hi Josh,

Yanqui Mike mentioned this happening but he did not fill me in on the details. Regardless, my imagination filled in the rest. It is an awful thing to have to go through and I feel for you man. These people obviously did their homework on you and when they have that type of information it is much easier to fall prey.

I know this does not help you now, but this might help others who have not gone through this. The main reason I did not fall for it was that my guys were morons, but behind that was that through them being morons I was able to determine that they were bluffing. What do you do against smart ones?

You could have a code word between you and your loved ones. If they were to call you ask for proof of life and in this case it could be a code word. You demand that they give you proof by asking them for the password. Whoever gets taken would know to give this password out.

That last idea I just thought up in the spur of the moment. Can anyone else think of any other ideas that would help?

Obviously not haven gone through what you did I have no idea how I would react. I do know I would be scared to death. However, talking about it, and trying to at least have some sort of plan, could add some chips in your favor come that awful time in which you might be a target.

Thanks Josh for sharing your story with me. I wish I could help somehow.


Anonymous said...

Thanks, Frank, for the support. It's definitely helped in the last week to realize I'm not the only person this has happened to; I'd never heard of this before when it happened. One of the scary things in one of those articles you linked to was how in Argentina they sometimes kidnap the person making the drop-off...I think the blurring of the line between this and actual kidnapping makes it much, much scarier. It's like playing no-limit poker without seeing your own cards.
A couple of anecdotes I heard, since this happened:

- The father of a friend of mine, a 90 year old man, got a call last year saying his grandson had been kidnapped. Apparently the callers were idiots, too, because he didn't fall for it.

- The brother of another acquaintance did fall for it a few months ago, drove his computer to an apartment in Centro...

- Happened to my landlord's girlfriend a few months ago (in Pilar? I think?) She hung up on them, called him at work and found he was okay.

Something worth a note -- and I have no idea why this is, but -- at least two of these events, and mine as well, started with the caller claiming to be the police, and saying that there had been an accident on a nearby street where a person was in an accident, got hit by a car, but they don't have a name, the person's dead, they just have this emergency number. In my case, that was easy to fall for and I was already freaking out too much to ask the right questions. Then another guy gets on the phone and starts screaming they've kidnapped this person and they're going to kill him/her. But the MO in these events where they pretend to be the police first is so strikingly similar I almost can't imagine it's being done by separate people...either that or they seriously lack originality.

Here's the thing: Even if it happened to me again right now, I'd have to give them the money. I don't know what else you can do if there's even a chance they have someone you love...there's nothing a victim of this can do about it. I wish the &*#*$&@ police would find these sons of bitches, because otherwise I don't see where or how this is ever going to stop...and you can't live your whole life in fear of a kidnapping...but how can you not be worried about it? I knew if we stayed there I'd be scared every time she walked out the door...I know that would fade with time, but then I might just get comfortable and careless and have it happen for real...

Well, excuse the rant, these are just the thoughts that have been going through my mind on this for the last week or so. People in Argentina were incredibly supportive after this and I think a lot of our friends were hurt that we left. I told them it's not Argentina in particular; this could happen anywhere. But the security situation there is not that good; I always felt safe banking on how sweet and well-intentioned the people I met were. In a country with such an informal system of justice, if you can't count on a network of friends and neighbors, you really start to be in trouble.

Best wishes,

SFO said...


I was thinking about your request for ideas.

It would seem that a big risk is having easily identifiable phone numbers programmed into your cell phone (mom, dad, home, etc). All it takes is someone to steal a phone (having taken a good look at the owner), and then to call one of these numbers. The thief would be able give a good description of the person, and the caller ID would match with the person’s phone.

Since teenagers everywhere seem to have cell phones these days, they would be easy targets, and probably wouldn’t immediately think to call their parents if their phone was stolen.

So my two suggestions are:
Don’t have easily identifiable phone numbers programmed into you cell phone;
If a family member has their cell phone stolen (or even if they think they may have lost it somewhere), to call their spouse/parents etc. to let them know.

Josh - I’m so very sorry to read what happened to you.

Un abrazo,


Unknown said...

Hi John,

Thanks for your input! Those are two very good ideas.

Unknown said...

I have also received some e-mails on this subject and this last one I saw on the Newcomer´s site and thought it interesting enough to copy and paste. What do you guys think? Although they are funny I don´t know how effective they would be if they actually startle you with details of someone you know.

"This thing happened a few years back in New York for maybe six months or so. Finally people began saying things like:

1. I'm sorry, all my family members are dead.
2. Which family member is it? I don't like all of them.
3. If you know this phone number, you know I'm on welfare and this phone belongs to my brother, the cop, right? Here, let me put him on...
4. Tell you what -- how about you hang up before I trace your call?
5. If you can't speak English, I can't help you.
6. Je ne parle rien de votre langue. Merci.
7. I'm sorry, could you call back? The reception is terrible.
8. This call was forwarded to me from New York. I'm in Moscow right now.

And so forth.


Anonymous said...

I remember in 1978 when I was a boy in Tennessee that my mom got a call one morning that my sister had been kidnapped from her bedroom. A girl even came on the phone pretending to be my sister crying for help. My mom actually would have believed it if it wasn't for my sister walking out of her bedroom while my mom was on the phone with the "kidnappers."

Unknown said...


That´s a great story especially since you guys got off without being victimized. It goes to show that this sort of stuff also happens in the States.

Thanks for sharing!

Anonymous said...

I had that happen to myself as well. The supposed kidnappers said that they had my husband, had a gun to his head and wanted $70,000. My husband, thankfully, had left the house only a few minutes before. Because of living here for awhile it was very hard for me to believe that Argentines would be able to finish all of the necessary acts to be able to call me within a few minutes of my husband leaving. Despite talking to multiple men and them trying to scare me, as they did you, I just couldnt buy into their story (thankfully). Eventually they became so frusterated with me that I wasn't becoming scared that they hung up on me.
I immediately called my husband, he was fine. We called an Argentine friend to get her opinion on it and she jokingly replied that we were now true Argentinians. We had passed the initiation.
So, Congradulations. You have passed the initiation as well!

♥♥♥ A- Licious ♥♥♥ said...

WOW - so glad you kept your cool and were able to handle it so well.

eye opener! :o)


Anonymous said...

I love it. Your response to the wannabe-thugs was great, and thanks for checking out my blog. One of these days E. and I are going to stop by your store to taste some cookies. I hear they're fantastic. Peace, Blessings.