In the U.S. state of Utah, police discovered a teenage Chinese exchange student alone in a freezing cold tent, after he had become the target in a “cyber kidnapping,” an elaborate online ransom scheme.

Online scammers had connected with 17 year-old Kai Zhuang, telling him that his family was in jeopardy. The only way to stop grave harm would be for him to behave in accordance with their demands.

At the same time, scammers had connected with Kai’s parents, informing them that Kai would remain in serious peril until they paid a ransom fee. Kai’s parents ultimately paid $80,000.

Cyber kidnapping

“The technology has reached a point where even loving parents who know their kids really well can be tricked,” said cyber security expert Joseph Steinberg.

In most cyber kidnapping cases, cyber criminals call or message a family or individual to deceive them into believing that a loved one has been kidnapped, even though the person is safe.

Victims have reported hearing screams on the phone, in their loved one’s voice, while the perpetrator claimed that the loved one was in dire straits – all in the interest of securing a monetary payment.

How it works

Effectively, all parties involved – the loved one and their family members – are manipulated into thinking that the other is in danger. In most cases, the loved one who’s ‘being held captive’ is not in any actual physical distress.

Cyber kidnappers will say anything to keep victims on the phone. In the event that a suspicious victim attempts to hang up or contact anyone, the scammers will make terrifying remarks that would spur the most level-headed of people to make rushed decisions around payment.

How common is it?

According to the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation, this is not an isolated incident. Other foreign exchange students, particularly of Chinese origin, have been targeted in similar terror-and-ransom scams in the U.S, Canada and Australia.

At present, no data exists around the frequency of virtual kidnappings. These events largely go unreported and unaccounted for, according to experts.

Kai Zhuang’s cyber kidnapping case

When Kai was found on a mountainside in a tent, he appeared to be relieved to see the police.
He requested to speak with his family over the phone to ensure their safety, and asked for a warm cheeseburger, both of which were accomplished on the way back to the police station.

“I want foreign exchange students to know they can trust police to protect them and to work with police to ensure their safety as well as their family’s safety abroad,” noted Riverdale Police Chief, Casey Warren.

Investigators are working with American authorities and the Chinese Embassy in order to find the kidnappers. The Chinese Embassy in the U.S. has since warned its citizens to watch out for cyber kidnappings and other forms of online fraud.

Cyber kidnapping prevention

Anyone can fall victim to a virtual kidnapping scam. Nonetheless, people can take steps to protect themselves.

  • First and foremost, people need to know about the problem.
  • People also need to remain cognizant of the personal information of theirs that’s available on the internet, as cyber kidnappers typically collect details about victims ahead of making threats.
  • Those who receive a suspicious call or message that could indicate a cyber kidnapping should try to independently reach the loved one in order to verify their location.
  • Ahead of traveling, set up specific keywords or phrases to use in emergency situations involving family; a code that cyber kidnappers would not be aware of.
  • Telecommunications companies can play a role in preventing these types of crimes by making improvements in call authentication and in tracing the source of calls.

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