Jobless and tempted by the above-average pay, Karen, 28, applied to work in a call center for Mexican loan app CashBox – unaware that her job would be to threaten and intimidate anyone who didn’t pay not in time.
During the five days she lasted on the job, bosses ordered her to harass customers whenever they missed a refund by mining their contact lists, text messages and photos, which the app had access to – in violation Mexican 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, asking to use a pseudonym for fear of reprisal.
“They take advantage of people who need jobs,” she said, adding that workers were routinely bullied by supervisors, forced to work unpaid overtime and without a proper contract. .
CashBox did not respond to requests for comment.
In August, the Thomson Reuters Foundation discovered that she was among the 29 loan applications with millions of downloads on the Google Play Store that have been reported to authorities for unscrupulous lending practices – such as exorbitant interest rates and commissions – and illegal debt collection tactics.
These ranged from threatening phone calls and text messages to distributing to client contacts photographs that had been altered to explicit images.
Last month, police in Mexico City raided seven call centers that serviced more than 90 lending applications, including CashBox, making 27 arrests and seizing hundreds of phones, computers and SIM cards used for customer extortion.
After the raids, the capital’s mayor, Claudia Sheinbaum, urged job seekers to avoid fraudulent call centres, saying “it is a crime to participate in any form of extortion”.
The workers tasked with implementing the apps’ heavy-handed tactics are mostly young people drawn to call centers because they have few job options, four former employees said.
6 out of 10 Mexicans aged 15 to 25 are currently unemployed, while half of the workforce earns minimum wage, forcing many to take any job, according to a recent report by think tank IMCO.
Abuse on WhatsApp
After Karen lost a construction job shortly before the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, her friend recommended the CashBox call center to her, who were looking for debt collectors. The same day she went to the interview, Karen was told she was hired and could start working, but she didn’t have a contract.
“It immediately seemed very strange to me, they didn’t even ask me for my ID or my tax information,” said Karen, who dropped out of law school for lack of money and made odd jobs since.
As soon as she started working, she was told to watch how her co-workers verbally abused customers during WhatsApp calls. “The supervisor would tell us to intimidate the customers by saying that we were going to get them to beat them up, or that something very bad would happen to them,” she recalls.
The Thomson Reuters Foundation investigation showed borrowers granted apps permission to access personal information stored on their phones because of unclear privacy policies, many of which violate Mexican law.
Police said in August they had received more than 15,000 complaints about 679 fraudulent lending apps and websites operating in Mexico, 311 of which are still active. Many complaints concerned the use of personal data.
CashBox is still available on the Google Play Store, with over a million downloads.
Desperate for jobs
Recruiters for the loan applications under investigation by the Mexican police advertise on Facebook for “telephone frame” roles for high school dropouts or people with high school education. Facebook groups have tens of thousands of members.
The roles, open to anyone between the ages of 18 and 40, offer immediate hiring and monthly salaries of more than 6,000 Mexican pesos (about $300), some 2,000 pesos more than the Mexican minimum wage.
But former call center debt collectors said they had no formal employment benefits such as Social Security, were usually paid in cash, and faced terms of hard work.
“The office was horrible, with makeshift wooden tables and no computer to work on. Everything was done from our own cell phones,” said Enrique Hernández, 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 use,” he said, adding that he needed the job to fund his studies.
Officers were also forced to use their personal phones to edit photos of clients and add captions such as “Wanted for paedophilia”, threatening to send the doctored images to close contacts to get them to pay.
“We specifically targeted contact names like mom, dad, or baby,” Hernández said.
In December 2021, Hernández found a new job at another fraudulent call center that collected money for loan applications Me Préstamos, Súper Préstamo, and Súper Pago, all of which were flagged for extortion and fraud.
None of the apps are active on the Google Play Store yet and no contact information could be found.
Karen and Hernández said they quit their jobs due to work irregularities and concerns about the legality of what they were doing. Both now work in official call centers serving banks.
“It’s a bad way to make easy money,” said Karen of Loan Application Call Centers. “I wouldn’t advise anyone to do that.”
This article first appeared on News from the Thomson Reuters Foundation.