By Diana Baptista
MEXICO CITY: Unemployed and tempted by the above-average salary, 28-year-old Karen applied to a call center for Mexican loan app CashBox — unaware her job would be to threaten and intimidate anyone who didn’t pays on time.
In the five days she was at the job, supervisors ordered her to harass customers if they missed a refund by searching their contact lists, text messages and pictures the app had access to – a violation of Mexico’s privacy law.
“A lot of us in the call center were scared and didn’t even know if what we were doing was legal,” Karen told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, requesting that a pseudonym be used for fear of reprisals.
“They take advantage of people who need a job,” she said, adding that workers are routinely bullied by bosses, forced to work unpaid overtime and treated without proper employment contracts.
CashBox did not respond to requests for comments.
In August, the Thomson Reuters Foundation found it was one of 29 lending apps with millions of downloads on the Google Play Store that were reported to authorities for unscrupulous lending practices — like sky-high interest rates and commissions — and illegal collection tactics.
These ranged from threatening phone calls and text messages to distributing photos that had been edited into explicit images to the client’s contacts.
Last month, Mexico City police raided seven call centers serving more than 90 lending apps, including CashBox, made 27 arrests and seized hundreds of phones, computers and SIM cards used to extort customers.
After the raids, the capital’s mayor, Claudia Sheinbaum, urged job seekers to avoid the fraudulent call centers, saying, “It is a crime to engage in any kind of extortion.”
The workers tasked with executing the apps’ clumsy tactics are mostly young people who are drawn to the call centers because they have few job opportunities, four former employees said.
Six out of 10 Mexicans aged 15 to 25 are currently unemployed, while half of the labor force earns minimum wage, forcing many to take any job they can find, according to a recent report by IMCO, a think tank.
ABUSE ON WHATSAPP
After Karen lost a construction job just before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, her friend recommended CashBox’s call center, which was looking for collection agencies.
The same day she went for the interview, Karen was told she was hired and could start work, but she was not given a contract.
“It struck me as very strange right away, they didn’t even ask for my ID or tax information,” said Karen, who dropped out of law school for lack of money and has been doing odd jobs ever since.
As soon as she started work, she was told to observe her colleagues swearing at customers during WhatsApp calls.
“The manager told us to intimidate the customers by saying we were going to look for them to beat them up or that something very bad was going to happen to them,” she recalled.
The Thomson Reuters Foundation investigation found borrowers gave the apps permission to access personal information stored on their phones due to unclear privacy policies, many of which violate Mexican laws.
Police said in August they had received more than 15,000 complaints related to 679 fraudulent loan apps and websites operating in Mexico, 311 of which are still active. Many of the complaints related to the use of personal data.
CashBox is still available on the Google Play Store, with over a million downloads.
high school dropout
Recruiters for the loan apps under investigation by Mexican police are promoting “phone manager” roles on Facebook for high school dropouts or those with a high school education. The Facebook groups have tens of thousands of members.
The positions, open to anyone between the ages of 18 and 40, offer immediate hire and monthly salaries of more than 6,000 Mexican pesos (about US$300), about 2,000 pesos more than the Mexican minimum wage.
However, former call center collections workers said they receive no formal job benefits such as Social Security, are usually paid in cash, and face harsh working conditions.
“The office was terrible, with makeshift wooden desks and no computers to work on. Everything was done from our own phones,” said Enrique Hernandez, 30, who has worked in three call centers since September 2021.
“I was uncomfortable using my phone number, so I brought another phone that I rarely used,” he said, adding that he needs the work to fund his studies.
Agents were also forced to use their personal phones to edit clients’ photos and add captions such as “wanted for pedophilia” and threatened to send the manipulated images to close contacts to force them to pay.
“We specifically targeted contact names like mom, dad, or baby,” Hernandez said.
In December 2021, Hernandez found a new job at another scam call center raising money for lending apps Me Prestamos, Super Prestamo, and Super Pago, all of which have been reported for racketeering and fraud.
None of the apps are still active in the Google Play Store and no contact information could be found.
Karen and Hernandez said they left their jobs due to labor irregularities and concerns about the legality of their jobs. Both now work in formal call centers servicing banks.
“It’s a bad way to make easy money,” said Karen of the loan app’s call centers. “I wouldn’t advise anyone to do that.”