In recent years, a new type of telecommunications fraud, known as virtual kidnapping, has been extensively targeting Chinese overseas students, with police in various regions of China and Chinese embassies and consulates abroad having frequently issued warnings, advising students to be vigilant against such scams.
At the end of last year, a Chinese student studying in Utah in the United States, was reported missing by his host family and was unreachable, suspected of being kidnapped.
Later on New Year’s Day, according to a statement from the Chinese embassy in the US, the student was found safe thanks to the efforts of both Chinese and US officials, adding that the student was in good health.
However, local police said that the 17-year-old student was a victim of a virtual kidnapping scam, revealing that his family had transferred approximately $80,000 to bank accounts in China due to continuous threats from the kidnappers.
In a statement, Riverdale Police Chief Casey Warren called the cyber kidnapping “a disturbing criminal trend”, warning that the cyber kidnappers have been targeting foreign exchange students, in particular Chinese foreign exchange students, by threatening them and their families and demanding ransom.
The kidnappers tell the victims to isolate themselves and are monitored through virtual video apps, said the statement.
“The cyber kidnappers convince the victim under duress to take photos of themselves that make it appear they are being held captive and send the photos to their parents.”
The victims comply out of fear that their families will be harmed if they don’t do what the cyber kidnappers say. Meanwhile, the cyber kidnappers continue to extort the family by using fear tactics, and photos and voice recordings of the victim, leading the family to believe the kidnappers are with the victim causing them harm.
This increasingly rampant new type of fraud has caught the attention of police departments in China and Chinese embassies.
The Department of Consular Affairs of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued warnings on its WeChat account about virtual kidnapping as early as 2018, and has issued 26 warnings so far.
In a warning issued in late December, the Chinese Consulate General in Melbourne, Australia, highlighted that telecom fraudsters are targeting Chinese overseas students with virtual kidnappings and have been seen operating across regions and countries.
The consulate also revealed a typical case in Australia, in which fraudsters coerced the victim to travel to Cambodia and stay at a designated hotel, warning that the cyber kidnapping could “put the victim’s safety at great risk”.
Hu Zhiwei, an anti-cybercrime official at the Ministry of Public Security, said that this type of virtual kidnapping has exploited the communication difficulties between overseas students and their parents, due to the long distance between each other, and deceived both of them.
“These frauds not only swindle huge amounts of money but also cause severe psychological harm,” he told China Media Group.
In addition, these scams, aside from causing financial and emotional damage to victims, may also potentially turn into actual kidnappings.
“Fraudsters may ask students to go to a third area or a third country, where the environment is unfamiliar to the overseas student,” said Hu. “If, by any chance, the victim ends up arriving at the base of the criminals, which is highly possible, there’s a good chance for the victim to lose personal freedom.”
The Foreign Ministry’s Consular Affairs Department reminded overseas students and their parents not to trust suspicious calls of virtual kidnappings and to immediately verify information through official channels.
Anyone falling victim to such scams should report to local police as soon as possible and cooperate with the police in investigations and evidence collection, the department said.