Sunday, May 9, 2010

Pay Up, or We’ll Kill Her!

It starts with a call, generally on your mobile (cell) phone. The first voice you hear is that of a woman (or girl, it’s hard to tell, because she’s crying so much). Her first words are “Mom. Mom,” (Or, if a male answers, “Dad, Dad,) they’ve kidnapped me!” And then the phone is snatched from her hand.
A male comes on the line. He threatens to kill your daughter. He wants money. The amount varies, but it’s more than you’re likely to have in cash. He’s aggressive. He threatens. He finally agrees to take part-payment in jewelry, watches, computers, anything else readily negotiable. But he wants it immediately. He warns you not to hang up. He tells you to keep you talking, wants to make sure you’re not trying to call the police, wants to keep you on the ‘phone throughout the entire process. He sets a place to meet you. You’re warned to come alone. He may ask you to hold the telephone outside the car window, so he can hear the wind, proof you’re on your way. When you get there, they’re waiting.
When they’re sure you’re alone, they move in, take what you’ve agreed to bring, steal everything else. And, only later, you discover your daughter was never kidnapped at all.
It’s called a falso sequestro, a fraudulent kidnapping, and here in Brazil, they’ve reached endemic proportions. Personally, we know four people who’ve been victimized. One of them was a neighbor, an aged lady who suffered a heart attack as a result, one a close friend, one a cousin, one a sister of my wife’s. Almost everyone you talk to in Brazil has at least one story, even José de Alencar, the vice-president of the republic.
 Read, here, about his experience:

Can you imagine something like that happening to Joe Biden? No, neither can I.
It’s not as if people in this country don’t know that falsos sequestros are all the rage.
At least once a week there’s an article in one of the newspapers, or an account on the radio, or on television. The scam has even been tried on a number of radio personalities who’ve been called at a moment when they were on the air. They broadcast them. They recorded them. And you can listen to two examples here:

Again, these are not staged, They’re real attempts at extortion. I know most of you aren’t going to understand the Portuguese, but I think the sheer desperation of the “victim” and the cold-bloodedness of the “kidnapper” come through even without knowledge of the language.
If you elect to listen, you’ll have to sit through a bit of backstory, an explanation of what happened from the radio professionals. But be patient and you’ll hear a crime actually being committed.
With all the publicity falsos sequestros are getting, the indices of people who fall for the scam must be dropping all the time. But it still works. It works because of the cold-blooded, psychological pressure these criminals are able to exert. It doesn’t matter that law-enforcement authorities keep saying that real professionals don’t act that way. It doesn’t even matter if you think you’re being scammed – because what if you’re not?
Do you want to take the chance? Tell the caller to go to Hell? Hang up the ‘phone?
Most people don’t.

Leighton - Monday


  1. Leighton - Do these people call at random? How is it they didn't know they were calling the vice president?

    The extortionists are great actors. They would have been highly successful in the pre-television radio dramas. They are convincing and it works because no one can take the chance that their child is in actual danger. "What if...." is the stuff of nightmares. Parents lose the ability to reason the minute the child is born and "what if" takes over. What if the young man who fell under the train at the stop my son uses every day is my son? "What if...." is a reliable place to go to extort something from a parent.

    A similar scheme I have heard of recently targets grandparents. A young man is traveling outside the United States. He calls his grandmother and tells her he has been arrested and he will go to jail unless he pays a fine immediately. He doesn't have the money, his parents aren't home, and he is going to be tossed in jail without any legal rights unless the police get a credit card number now. Of course, there is yelling in the background, the young man sounds frightened, he is a long way from home, how can she not give the credit card number? In fact, her grandson is safe at school and both parents can be easily reached on their cell phones,

    As long as there are children who are loved, those who love them are potential victims.


  2. Oh!

    I am happy I have BOTH my daughters next to me in the sofa - because I have such a nasty imagination.

  3. Beth,
    The calls are, indeed, made on a random basis.
    Some of the villains apprehended had lists demonstrating to investigators that they started at a given number and simply increased it by one with every successive call.
    They have no idea about who's liable to pick up the phone. They keep trying, and trying, until they get a "live one".
    In listening to the the recordings you'll almost always hear them ask the question, "Where are you?"
    Many of the calls are actually made from inside prisons. Prisoners aren't supposed to have cell phones, but they seem to have no difficulty in getting them. (Bribes to guards, smuggling within the bodies of women during "conjugal visits" and even carrier pigeons, bred in the cells and employed to fly-in the 'phones piece-by-piece.)
    The government has tried blocking cell phone service in the immediate area surrounding penitentiaries, but complaints from the public are such that they invariably wind up by restoring service.
    São Paulo's biggest gang, the PCC, tens of thousands of members strong, is run from within the prisons - by cell 'phone.
    And, to get around the problem of not having a woman available to play the "daughter", they set up three-way calls.

  4. What is actually happening sounds like a plot for a novel.

    I do not understand "conjugal visits". Isn't punishment the point of prison? Being deprived of wife or whomever should be part of the sentence. The men who do pretend to kidnap children may well have really done it and are in prison for that very thing. Why should they be allowed anything of normal life?

    When I was first teaching a number of the students came from a section of the city that was the breeding ground for bank robbers. They were generally inept in the extreme and caught with embarrassing swiftness. They'd get sent to jail but the state had this furlough system by which good behavior could get them a weekend home. Bank robbers are "glamorous" to a teenager and some of the robbers weren't much more than kids themselves. Furlough led to more than a few pregnancies. What committee of idiots couldn't see that as a result of their enlightened penal philosophy?

    It seems the inmates are running the prisons. It's the same in the US. Too many prisoners, too few prisons. Legislatures are reluctant to take any action but people caught with a small amount of drugs or who are low-level dealers get the same prison sentences as hardened criminals. There are more non-dangerous prisoners in some of the prisons than there are people who should be there for the remainder of their natural lives. Some are released early to make room for more. Doing hard time doesn't exist much anymore.

  5. Beth,

    What happens in Brazilian prisons hasn't, as far as I know, given rise to a novel. But one incident did result in a feature film: Hector Babenco's CARANDIRU.
    This 2003 film must be available in the 'States (Netflix?) because it was recognized at the Cannes Festival. It centers around an actual incident, a prison riot in 1992. There's a (not very good) trailer of the film here:

    The story is this: a riot broke out. The police were called in to suppress it and stormed the building you see at the beginning of the trailer. (Since destroyed.)

    The final death toll: 111 prisoners killed (no cops) of which 102 were shot. The other nine were stabbed, and this was blamed on prisoners who took revenge on other prisoners before the arrival of the police. Survivors later claimed that many of those killed were shot while trying to take refuge in their cells.
    I don't think such an incident is likely to happen again, but...
    So, you see, in some ways you're right when you say that the inmates are running the prisons.
    But in other ways, no. It's a complex issue.
    When the authorities crack down they REALLY crack down.
    The idea behind conjugal visits is that, if they weren't permitted, it would be "cruel and unusual punishment" and stimulate "immoral acts" among the prisoners.
    It is also supposed to release sexual tension thereby making the prisoners more malleable.
    Too many prisoners, too few prisons? And how!
    Overcrowding in Brazilian prisons and jails exists to a point unimaginable in the United States.
    There have been cases where cells were so packed that there wasn't room for all the prisoners to lie down at once.
    And cases were stronger prisoners killed weaker ones just to have more living space.

  6. Hi Leighton-

    That's so scary to me, I'm sick hearing your wife's sister, her family were victimized.
    What a nightmare.

  7. It does sound like a movie. As a mother of two I can only imagine that phone call. I would respond in a heartbeat. How could you not? It's almost the perfect crime...and it truly is something worthy of fiction. If only it WERE fiction.

    Just when I think we have imagined the sickest things...real life happens.

    Southern City Mysteries

  8. Jeez, Leighton, this is awful. And really tightly written. I just want to say that if anyone is reading Leighton's posts who isn't reading his novels, I don't know what you're waiting for. I read the second one, BURIED STRANGERS first, months ago, and week before last I bought the first, BLOOD OF THE WICKED, and the new, DYING GASP, and I've had a Leighton Gage week, reading BLOOD OF THE WICKED and re-reading BURIED STRANGERS. I'm currently reading Ross Thomas' fourth novel (I'm reading all of him in sequence) and as soon as I put it down I'll open DYING GASP. And then I'll have to wait, like the rest of you, for the next one.

    Also bought books by Yrsa and Dan and Cara, since I already had Stan's and Michael's. Maybe soon I'll blog about the writers on this site. I'm in seriously good company.