Kai Zhuang, a 17-year-old Chinese exchange student, has been found alive in the Utah wilderness after going missing in what local police are calling a case of “cyber kidnapping,” a new criminal trend in which scammers extort vulnerable victims remotely, convincing their families they’ve been forcibly kidnapped and demanding ransom money.
Zhuang was reported missing on Dec. 28, after his family in China contacted his school in the U.S. to report they’d received images that suggested he was forcibly kidnapped, even as Zhuang’s host family in the U.S. told police they had seen Zhuang earlier that day and were unaware of a forcible kidnapping, according to Riverdale, Utah Police Chief Casey Warren.
His family paid approximately $80,000 in ransom money to Chinese bank accounts after receiving “continuous threats from the kidnappers” about Zhuang’s safety, police said.
Meanwhile, the scammers were threatening Zhuang for possibly a month, telling him if he didn’t comply with their demands, his family would be harmed in China, and ordering him to isolate himself in the woods and send photos to his parents, Warren said in a Tuesday press conference.
The Riverdale Police and Weber County Sheriff’s Office used bank and phone data to track Zhuang’s movements and general area and conducted a drone search and rescue, finding Zhuang camping in the Brigham City canyon area alive “but very cold and scared,” police said.
In his press statement, Warren said that, as part of the investigation, the FBI had briefed the department of this “disturbing criminal trend,” highlighting similar cases that have been targeting foreign exchange students—and Chinese foreign exchange students, in particular.
In these “cyber kidnapping” cases, the scammers tell victims to isolate themselves and may convince them under duress to make it appear they are being held captive—in some cases even contacting the victim via webcam and sending voice recordings to the families.
Other local law enforcement agencies have reported so-called cyber kidnapping cases—last month, the Grant County Sheriff’s Office in Washington reported receiving similar cases. In some, scammers have been suspected of using artificial intelligence to mimic the victim’s voice or likeness. Earlier this year, CNN reported on the case of Jennifer DeStefano in Arizona, who received a cyber kidnapping call that included fake audio of her daughter screaming—which she believes was generated with artificial intelligence. In June, the FBI issued a warning about scammers’ use of artificial intelligence to generate explicit images of victims to harass or extort—also known as a “sextortion” scam. But the FBI has also been warning about these cyber kidnapping scams as far back as 2017. The Bureau noted then that these cases have been known to law enforcement for at least two decades, but used to be common mostly along the southern border. They’ve since evolved to reach residents all over the U.S.
$8.8 billion. That’s how much money Americans lost in scams in 2022, with $2.6 billion of that in so-called imposter scams, according to the Federal Trade Commission.
Following Zhuang’s case, the Chinese Embassy in the U.S. warned Chinese citizens, especially students, “to boost safety awareness, take necessary precautions, and stay vigilant against ‘virtual kidnapping’ and other forms of telecom and online fraud so as to protect their personal and property safety.”
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
The Riverdale Police Department noted that if you believe you are the victim of a cyber kidnapping, “do not send money, discontinue contact with the suspects, and contact police immediately.”