Utah: Missing Foreign Exchange Student Found in Woods After Cyber Kidnapping Scam

Officials warn of a new criminal trend in which scammers extort victims remotely, convincing their families they’ve been forcibly kidnapped and demanding ransom money.

Utah: Missing Foreign Exchange Student Found in Woods After Cyber Kidnapping Scam

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RIVERDALE, Utah — A missing foreign exchange student from China who was a victim of “cyber kidnapping” was found in a tent in dangerously cold temperatures in the Utah mountains, according to police.

Riverdale Police said 17-year-old Kai Zhuang was reported missing by his high school Thursday night after his parents said they received a ransom demand and a picture of their son indicating he had been abducted, reports CNN. The family said they sent $80,000 to bank accounts in China as they received continuous threats from the alleged kidnappers.

Using Zhuang’s bank and phone records and with support from the Weber County Sheriff’s Office Search and Rescue Drone team, police located him Sunday at a makeshift campsite in a wooded area of the mountains near Brigham City, located about 25 miles north of Riverdale.

According to a press release from police, Zhuang was found “alive but very cold and scared” and “had no heat source inside the tent, only a heat blanket, a sleeping bag, limited food and water and several phones that were presumed to be used to carry out the cyber kidnapping.”

Cyber kidnappers tend to target foreign exchange students, particularly those from China, and tell their victims to make it appear they are being held captive in an attempt to extort the victim’s family for ransom, according to ABC News. The victims are ordered to isolate themselves and are monitored through FaceTime or Skype. They are forced to take photos of themselves and the photos are sent to their family. While the kidnapping is done remotely, victims often comply out of fear that their families will be harmed.

More than a week before he was reported missing, police officers came upon Zhuang as he was carrying camping equipment in Provo, Utah, on Dec. 20. Provo Police said they were concerned for his safety and arranged for him to be taken back to his host family. Riverdale Police said at that point, Zhuang was already being “manipulated and controlled by the cyber kidnappers” but that he did not tell the police or his host family.

Police went to his host home when he was reported missing Thursday. The family said they were unaware he was missing, noting he was home the night before and that they heard him early that morning. Police said there was no evidence that he was forcibly taken from the home.

Riverdale Police said anyone who is the target of cyber kidnapping should contact local police, stop all contact with the suspects, and not send money. The U.S. Chinese Embassy also warned Chinese citizens, particularly 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.”

Similarly, in California, families of students enrolled in the Oakland Unified School District are increasingly being targeted with kidnapping phone scams. In December, three families received calls from someone telling them they’d kidnapped their child and that they wouldn’t release them unless they paid a ransom. The callers knew the names of the children. In all three cases, the students were in school and safe.

Some scammers are even using artificial intelligence (AI) when targeting their victims. CNN reports that one mother believes the scammers cloned her 15-year-old daughter’s voice when they called her.

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Amy is Campus Safety’s Executive Editor. Prior to joining the editorial team in 2017, she worked in both events and digital marketing.

Amy has many close relatives and friends who are teachers, motivating her to learn and share as much as she can about campus security. She has a minor in education and has worked with children in several capacities, further deepening her passion for keeping students safe.

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