WASHINGTON — A recent cyber kidnapping incident involving a Chinese exchange student in Utah appears to be part of an international pattern in which unknown perpetrators, often masquerading as Chinese police or government officials, target Chinese students around the world and extort their families for upwards of tens of thousands of dollars.

In late December, 17-year-old Chinese student Kai Zhuang was reported missing near Salt Lake City, only to be found days later alone and freezing in a tent in the mountains. Authorities have said the case was part of an apparent cyber kidnapping scheme to scam his family in China out of $80,000.

Cyber kidnapping is when perpetrators pretend to have abducted someone to coerce their family into paying a ransom.

“At the heart of it are the heartstrings of the victim, who is told to go run and hide, and the heartstrings of the people who think their loved one is actually in the possession of kidnappers,” said Theresa Payton, CEO of cybersecurity company Fortalice Solutions.

“Virtual kidnapping is, at its very root, manipulative. It is coercive. It is emotionally draining and complex,” said Payton, who is based in Charlotte, North Carolina.

On January 3, just days after Kai Zhuang was found, the FBI issued a warning about criminals impersonating Chinese police officers to defraud Chinese people based in the United States, especially Chinese students.

Around the world

VOA has learned that the cyber scams aren’t targeting only Chinese students studying in the United States.

Over the past year, Chinese students studying abroad in Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom and Japan have also been targeted by cyber kidnapping scams and other cybercrime schemes, VOA found.

In these countries, the perpetrators also often pretended to be Chinese police officers or government officials. Cybersecurity experts said this tactic indicates criminals are leveraging China’s authoritarian system, in which deference to and fear of the police are the norm, to their advantage.

“Chinese people are naturally afraid of the police,” said Han Jiang Du Diao Seng, a pharmacist based in the United States who runs accounts on YouTube and Weibo that are popular among Chinese exchange students.

Han Jiang Du Diao Seng has helped four Chinese students caught up in cyber kidnapping scams, he said. In his experience, he said, scammers posing as government officials tend to approach Chinese students and first ask if they recently received money from their family in China.

If the student says yes, he said, the scammer either claims the money was transferred illegally or that their family is being targeted by criminals, before requiring the student to halt contact with their family during an investigation — all of which is a ploy to then extort money from the family.

Left their homes

In the incidents Han Jiang Du Diao Seng worked on, he said, the criminals coerced all the students to leave where they lived and go stay at a hotel, which helped convince their parents that they were actually kidnapped.

He said that these criminals may be taking advantage of the fact that Chinese parents may be less likely to report the incidents to American police — in part due to language barriers but also due to general distrust among Chinese people of the American police. Chinese state media regularly depict American police as violent and irresponsible.

“You have a fear of government involvement and law enforcement involvement because the relationship to the government is different,” cybersecurity expert Joseph Steinberg said, referring to people from authoritarian countries such as China.

There is no clear data on the number of cyber kidnapping cases in the United States or around the world, cybersecurity experts told VOA, but incidents seem to be rising. Technological advancements, particularly with artificial intelligence, risk making the schemes even easier to perpetrate, they said.

There are different tiers of sophistication in these cybercrime syndicates, according to Payton. At the lower end, perpetrators may use an auto dialer to target random people in hopes of getting a few hundred dollars, she said.

More sophisticated schemes

At the upper end, perpetrators use artificial intelligence algorithms to identify targets and deepfake technology to create photos and audio intended to make victims believe their loved one has actually been kidnapped, Payton said.

“You do not actually have to be technically minded to get into this type of crime. You just have to be a twisted, evil individual,” she said.

AI advancements mean perpetrators don’t even need to speak the same language as their victims, according to Steinberg, who is based in New York City.

“AI is only going to get better, and that means that the attacks will only be more and more realistic,” he told VOA.

Some cybercriminals are just after a quick buck, Steinberg said. “But you have some that are after the big dollars and will spend the time to do the research,” he said.

That may help explain why Chinese exchange students apparently are being specifically targeted.

Payton said that given the complex relationship between the Chinese government and its citizens, as well as other factors such as culture, history and economics, “it is conceivable that global criminal syndicates engaging in such activities as virtual kidnapping may perceive young Chinese adults studying abroad as more susceptible to fall prey to this crime,” Payton said.

In Canada in February 2023, regional police said Chinese students had been swindled out of hundreds of thousands of dollars by scammers claiming to be Chinese government officials.

Similar incidents have played out in Australia, Japan and the United Kingdom. It is not clear whether the perpetrators of any of these crimes are linked in any way. The investigation into the recent Utah incident is ongoing, and it is not clear whether the perpetrators imitated Chinese officials.

China’s embassy in Washington did not respond to that question when VOA reached out for comment.

Warnings from embassies and police

The embassy did urge Chinese citizens in the U.S., especially those studying in the country, to boost safety awareness, take necessary precautions, and stay vigilant against “virtual kidnapping” and other forms of telecom and online fraud.

In the span of two months in Japan last summer, at least six Chinese students were targeted in cyber kidnapping schemes, local police said. The Chinese Embassy in Tokyo issued a warning about the scams in August, urging Chinese citizens in the country to “be wary” and “vigilant.”

Local British police issued a warning about cyber scams targeting Chinese students in September, and the Australian government released a similar warning a month later.

“These criminal syndicates demonstrate a profound understanding of human behavior, potentially leveraging fear tactics to manipulate individuals into compliance and their families into making payments. They are targeting all demographics, but the trend appears to indicate they favor targeting Chinese exchange students studying abroad,” Payton said.

To avoid falling victim to these kinds of schemes, cybersecurity experts recommended families set up a password to verify one another’s identity over the phone during these kinds of scenarios.

“The cyber kidnapping scam very much can happen to anybody, and that’s what people need to be aware of,” Steinberg said.