With the advent of artificial intelligence, there has also been a surge in online crimes. In the realm of cyber crimes, there’s a new trend that’s emerged known as ‘cyber kidnapping.’ Parents across the globe are falling prey to it. Recently, a Chinese exchange student fell victim to this ‘cyber attacking’ scam in which his parents were extorted for $80,000 in the US.

A 17-year-old victim Kai Zhuang, was reported missing by his high school last week in Utah and later located in a tent in the woods. He was reported missing last week in Riverdale, Utah. Kai was convinced that his family in China was threatened and that he needed to isolate himself, according to police. It’s unclear how he received this information or why he was isolating himself.

cyber kidnapping crime

Also Read: The Unbeatable Tetris Stands Defeated By A 13-Year-Old Boy

What Transpired

Kai Zhuang’s parents had informed his host school, in Utah’s Riverdale, that he appeared to have been kidnapped. The school then contacted the police. They initially believed that the student had been forcefully taken from his home. The Riverdale police then collaborated with the FBI, the US embassy in China, and Chinese officials in the search for Zhuang.

He was found safe in a tent about 25 miles (40 kms) away from Riverdale in the Brigham City area on Sunday night where he seemed to have self-isolated. Meanwhile, his family had received a ransom note and photograph of the student that made it appear that he’d been abducted and was in danger. They had already paid $80,000 in ransom before he was found.

cyber kidnapping utah kai zhuang

What Is Cyber Kidnapping?

Cyber kidnapping refers to a crime where the ‘kidnappers’ convince their victim to hide, and then contact their loved ones for ransom. The criminal compels a victim to isolate and provide pictures of themselves as if being held captive – showing them bound or gagged. The photos are then sent to the victim’s family to extort a payment.

Both parties, the victim and the family, believe their loved ones will be harmed if they don’t do as the kidnappers ask and end up complying. Perpetrators employ threats, isolation orders, video monitoring, and ransom demands to coerce families into compliance. The ‘kidnappers’, though not physically present, monitor the victim online through video-call platforms.

Cyber kidnappers have been targeting foreign exchange students in the US recently – Chinese students in particular, and extorting huge amounts of money from parents. In the Utah boy’s case too, his parents were sent a picture indicating he had been kidnapped. The police believe the kidnappers have manipulated him since December 20. He was traced by analysing call data and bank records.

cyber kidnapping hacking crime

FBI’s official website addresses this newly increasing crime saying, “Although virtual kidnapping takes on many forms, it is always an extortion scheme—one that tricks victims into paying a ransom to free a loved one they believe is being threatened with violence or death. Unlike traditional abductions, virtual kidnappers have not actually kidnapped anyone. Instead, through deceptions and threats, they coerce victims to pay a quick ransom before the scheme falls apart.

How To Prevent It

Cyber Kidnapping sure sounds scary but it is definitely preventable. Some of the measures people can take to protect themselves from this new crime are:

  • Cyber criminals can make it appear like they are calling from a loved one’s number. Experts recommend being extra careful with calls from unknown numbers.
  • If you get an emergency call or a message from home, the first step would be to verify the location of your loved ones.
  • Families can come up with phrases or code words that perpetrators would not be aware of.
  • Scammers can also use data you have shared on social media to make their calls more convincing, so be careful of what you share about yourself and your children online, especially names, specific locations, pictures of your home, neighbourhood, or children’s school.
  • Experts also recommend checking up on your loved ones before making payments, and to approach the police.
  • Law enforcement agencies and telecommunications companies must take stringent measures against such calls and messages.

Experts believe that with the rise of Artificial Intelligence (AI), crimes like these could see a steady rise. Scammers can send people voice notes that sound exactly like a loved one in distress. Last year, an Arizona woman testified in the US Senate about receiving such a call.

When Jennifer DeStefano picked up a call from an unknown number, “her 15-year-old daughter”, crying, told her some “bad men” had her. A man then threatened her and demanded ransom. After she cut the call, she called up her daughter, and realised she was safe.

cyber kidnapping hacking

While there is no clear data yet on how many such cyber kidnapping crimes occur each year, law enforcement experts say they are on the rise. A BBC report from July 2020 mentions that eight cases of cyber kidnap had been reported in Australia that year, all targeting Chinese students.