‘Pay up or die:’ Social media extortion calls on the rise, blamed on cartels, crime gangs

Dec 21, 2021

The phone call, voice or text message offers a simple proposition: “Pay me or I’ll kill you or your family.”

According to the National Police Anti-kidnapping and Extortion Unit, most of those receiving the calls are in Guayaquil and Quito although several threats have been reported in Cuenca, Loja and Machala. Although there have so far been no violence associated with the messages, police are concerned due to the increasing volume of the calls and the threat of murder.

“It appears that these are mostly fishing expeditions and the callers, who identify themselves are members of drug cartels or prison gangs, make multiple calls in hopes someone pays,” says police commander Paul Martinez. “This is standard internet extortion practice but we are worried because of the threat of violence.”

Most of the phone calls come through WhatsApp or Telegram and appear to originate in Colombia, Venezuela  or Mexico, Martinez says.

A typical message indicates that the caller has done some online research on Facebook, Instagram or other social media platform. It contains information about the person receiving the message or the person’s family.

According to Martinez, a call may go something like this: “I have been instructed by members of the Choneros [or Revolutionary Armed Forces] to kill you [or your parents]. However, I don’t want to kill you and if you pay me $2,000 I will ignore my order.” Sometimes, the caller will provide details about your schedule or where you or your family lives. The caller or texter will then provide a bank account number for deposit of money.

“We know of several cases where money was paid and by the time we get information about it the bank account was closed,” Martinez says. He adds: “Because of the violence in the prisons and the news about it, many people who receive messages are justifiable scared. We tell them that they are probably safe but ask for more information since the more we know, the better chance we have of catching those responsible.”

After making a police report, Martinez advises those threatened to block the caller or messenger. “Of course the best way to end the threat is to cancel your social media accounts but this is not an option for many people. We are not aware of anyone without social media being threatened.”

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