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Virtual Kidnappings: On the Rise

CBS News producer Carolyn Lippert based in Mexico City, Mexico wrote this for

There is a mass psychosis in México.

Greg Cowal, an American businessman living in Mexico, received a call one day from someone claiming to have kidnapped his college-age daughter. The caller gave him instructions to drive until he got to a street corner, where he left his watch and one thousand dollars. When Cowal found his daughter at home, he realized he paid ransom for a fake kidnapping.

Cowal's experience is not an unusual one. 'Virtual kidnappings' have become a common extortion technique in Mexico, where there are many people who know or heard of someone that has been kidnapped that they easily fall victim to telephone extortionists.

The extortionists usually call a random phone number and put a screaming child or an adult pretending to be a child on the line. The victim may mistakenly think that it's their own child and sometimes even reveals the name himself by calling it. A man then gets on the line and makes a list of demands.

A hot-line to report these calls was set up in Mexico City in December 2007. Since then there have been over 44 thousand calls to report extortion attempts. Mexico City's local government says 22,851 extortion attempts were avoided and 1,627 people reported that they paid "virtual" kidnappers since that date. In addition the hot-line is receiving thousands of calls from other states outside of Mexico City that do not have their own hot-lines. Mexico City's Police Chief, Joel Ortega, said there have been eight arrests and 3,415 telephone numbers have been identified as those of the extortionists.

Fernando Pacheco, a retired Mexican engineer, came to close to being another victim of extortionists. "Papa do what they say to save me," he heard someone say on the phone one day as he was sitting in his son's apartment recovering from an operation. "We don't want to harm him, just follow our instructions. Do not call the police. Look for everything of value in the house," said someone who got on the line. Pacheco immediately got into a taxi to go to his own house and get money, but was warned by the taxi driver that this was a common extortion practice. This was confirmed when Pacheco called his son and he answered his phone.

Another American couple living in Mexico was also easy prey for the extortionists. The wife got a call about her son being kidnapped. The husband immediately came home to wait for another call from the "kidnappers" and started gathering all the cash they had to pay as ransom. Fortunately for the family, the son came back home before the extortionists called.

The public is becoming educated about virtual kidnapping problem and the number of people that pay the extortionists is declining as the word gets out, said Pável Camero Cardeña, Coordinadator of Citizens Agents for the Mexico City Public Safety and Attorney General's Office.

By Carolyn Lippert