“Chinese students around the world are being targeted by cyber ‘kidnapping’ scams.” There is a trend of cyber ‘kidnapping’ scams aimed at Chinese students globally.
A recent case of cyber abduction involving a Chinese exchange student in Utah seems to be part of a global trend where unidentified individuals, pretending to be Chinese authorities, target Chinese students abroad and demand large sums of money from their families.
In late December, a 17-year-old student from China named Kai Zhuang was reported as missing near Salt Lake City. However, days later he was discovered alone and cold in a tent in the mountains. Officials suspect that this was a cyber kidnapping plot to defraud his family in China of $80,000.
Cyber kidnapping refers to the act of falsely claiming to have abducted an individual in order to manipulate their family into paying a ransom.
Theresa Payton, CEO of Fortalice Solutions, stated that the core of the issue lies in the emotional impact on both the victim and their loved ones, as the victim is instructed to flee and hide while their family and friends believe they have been taken by kidnappers.
According to Payton, who works in Charlotte, North Carolina, virtual kidnapping is fundamentally deceitful, coercive, and emotionally taxing.
On January 3rd, shortly after the discovery of Kai Zhuang, the FBI released a cautionary message regarding imposters posing as Chinese law enforcement officials in order to scam Chinese individuals residing in the United States, specifically Chinese students.
Around the world
According to VOA, cyber scams are not solely focused on Chinese students who are studying in the United States.
In the last year, VOA discovered that Chinese students who are studying in Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Japan have been victims of cyber kidnapping scams and other forms of cybercrime.
In these nations, the culprits frequently posed as Chinese law enforcement or government representatives. Specialists in cybersecurity stated that this strategy suggests that wrongdoers are exploiting China’s authoritarian regime, where deference and apprehension towards the police are commonplace, for their benefit.
According to Han Jiang Du Diao Seng, a pharmacist in the United States who manages popular YouTube and Weibo accounts for Chinese exchange students, there is an inherent fear of the police among Chinese individuals.
According to Han Jiang Du Diao Seng, he has assisted four Chinese students who were victims of cyber kidnapping scams. Based on his observations, individuals pretending to be government officials typically target Chinese students and inquire about any recent financial transactions with their families in China.
When the student agrees, the scammer will either say that the money was transferred illegally or that their family is in danger from criminals. The scammer then asks the student to stop communicating with their family while an investigation takes place. This is all part of a plan to extort money from the family.
Left their homes
Han Jiang Du Diao Seng reported that in the cases he worked on, the perpetrators forced all the students to vacate their homes and stay at a hotel. This tactic was used to deceive the students’ parents into believing that they had been kidnapped.
He stated that these offenders might be exploiting the possibility that Chinese parents are less inclined to inform American authorities about the occurrences, possibly due to language barriers and a general lack of trust in American law enforcement. Chinese state media frequently portrays American police as aggressive and unreliable.
According to cybersecurity expert Joseph Steinberg, individuals from authoritarian nations like China may have a reluctance towards government and law enforcement involvement due to the different nature of their relationship with the government.
According to cybersecurity experts interviewed by VOA, there is a lack of concrete information regarding the frequency of cyber kidnapping incidents in the US and globally. However, there appears to be an increase in cases. The experts also expressed concern that advancements in technology, specifically artificial intelligence, may make these schemes even more accessible for perpetrators.
Payton explains that cybercrime syndicates vary in levels of complexity. At the lowest level, criminals may utilize an auto dialer to randomly target individuals with the goal of obtaining a small sum of money.
More sophisticated schemes
According to Payton, at the higher level, offenders utilize AI algorithms to pinpoint potential victims and deepfake technology to produce false images and audio in order to convince victims that their loved one has been abducted.
According to her, one does not necessarily need technical knowledge to engage in this type of crime. Instead, one simply needs to possess a twisted and malicious nature.
According to Steinberg, who is located in New York City, the progress in AI technology allows wrongdoers to communicate with their victims without even sharing a common language.
According to the speaker, as AI continues to improve, attacks will become increasingly realistic.
According to Steinberg, certain cybercriminals are motivated by financial gain, while others are willing to invest time and effort in order to make larger profits.
This could potentially clarify the reason for the apparent targeting of Chinese exchange students.
According to Payton, due to the intricate dynamics between the Chinese government and its people, along with other influences like culture, history, and economics, it is possible that international criminal organizations involved in crimes like virtual kidnapping may view young Chinese students studying abroad as easier targets for this offense.
Regional authorities in Canada reported in February 2023 that Chinese students had fallen victim to fraudulent activities, losing large sums of money to scammers posing as representatives of the Chinese government.
There have been similar occurrences in Australia, Japan, and the United Kingdom. It is uncertain if the individuals responsible for these acts are connected in any manner. The investigation of the recent incident in Utah is still ongoing, and it is unclear if the culprits were imitating Chinese officials.
The Chinese embassy in Washington did not provide a response when VOA contacted them for comment.
Notifications and comments from embassies and law enforcement agencies.
The Chinese embassy in the United States has advised Chinese citizens, particularly students, to increase their awareness of safety, take precautionary measures, and remain watchful of “virtual kidnapping” and other types of telecom and online scams.
Local authorities in Japan reported that during the summer, six Chinese students were victims of online kidnapping plots. The Chinese Embassy in Tokyo issued a cautionary notice about these fraudulent activities in August, advising Chinese residents to exercise caution and remain vigilant.
In September, the local British authorities issued a cautionary notice regarding online scams that specifically target Chinese students. The Australian government also released a similar warning a month later.
According to Payton, these illegal groups possess a deep understanding of human actions and may use fear tactics to coerce people into obeying and convincing their loved ones to pay. They are not discriminating in their targets, but they seem to have a preference for Chinese exchange students who are studying overseas.
To prevent becoming a target of such schemes, cybersecurity experts advise families to establish a password for confirming each other’s identity over the phone in such situations.
Steinberg stated that the cyber kidnapping scam is a real threat to everyone and it’s important for people to be mindful of this.