International students are being conned into faking their own abduction. Here’s why
These are not your usual prank calls.
They are elaborate phone scams targeting vulnerable Chinese international students, who are tricked into manipulating their parents into paying large ransoms to criminal syndicates.
In the elaborate extortion, blackmailed students are forced to stage their own kidnappings and then send video “proof” to their families overseas for money in exchange for their safe release.
Despite repeated warnings about “virtual-kidnapping” scams from Australian police, Chinese authorities and Chinese-Australian community groups in recent years, international students have continued to fall for the scam.
Last Tuesday, a Chinese international high-school student in Sydney who was the victim of the scam was located by NSW Police after her family reportedly paid more than $200,000 in ransom.
It was just one of nine incidents of virtual kidnappings reported to the NSW Police this year, with scammers netting more than $3.2 million.
ACT Police said a number of incidents were reported to them in March 2019 and a total of $150,000 was paid to scammers.
Police in Victoria, Tasmania, Queensland, Western Australia and the Northern Territory say they have not recorded any virtual-kidnapping cases this year but they remain vigilant about this type of scam.
So how do international students get conned into faking their own abduction? Why do so many people fall for it? And what should they do if they find themselves caught up in the plot?
Who is targeted and how do they get tricked?
Scammers typically target Chinese international students who have recently arrived in Australia or people who are socially isolated in the Chinese-Australian community.
Skye Cai, vice-president of Australian Emergency Assistance Association Incorporated (AEAAI), has assisted the overseas families of a handful of victims in the past two years by helping them liaise with local police officers and providing translation support.
The AEAAI is a Chinese-Australian community support network and a neighbourhood watch group with volunteers across Australia.
Ms Cai told the ABC the ages of the victims ranged from 17 to 50, but it was usually young people with limited social experience who fell victim to the scam.
Ms Cai said, based on what she had personally dealt with, there were usually four steps involved in a virtual-kidnapping scam, which usually took months to carry out.
First, victims receive an automated call or call from a real person impersonating a person in authority, such as a government, Chinese embassy or Australian Tax Office official, or a police officer. Or even a logistics provider or COVID-19 testing centre staff member.
Ms Cai said if the victim engaged in the call, the fraudster would trick them into giving them their private information, including their full name, date of birth, and residential address either over the phone or via a form on a phishing website.
The scammers would also encourage the victims to continue communications through various encrypted apps such as WeChat and WhatsApp.
Second, the scammers accuse the victim of committing a crime and threaten to use their personal information to enforce a legal punishment.
That might involve deportation, having their visa cancelled, legal action or being arrested unless they or their families pay a ransom.
The third step involves gaining the victim’s trust and telling them they are involved in a financial investigation that could have implications for their family in China if they fail to pay.
Finally, the scammers say they need a “bond” to make the problem go away. They suggest the victim fakes their own kidnapping to manipulate their parents into paying if they do not have the cash themselves.
Scammers also coerce the victim to take photos and videos of themselves bound and blindfolded which are sent to their family. The victim is then forced to move to an unknown location such as a hotel, but without communication to the outside world.
And to make sure the whole plot is kept under wraps, the scammer tells them the investigation is a sensitive matter and they should not contact their family or authorities.
Why do so many people fall for the same scam?
According to authorities and experts, there has been a re-emergence of phone scams targeting the Asian community since 2018.
NSW Detective Chief Superintendent Darren Bennett said in a statement virtual kidnappings were “designed to take advantage of people’s trust in authorities and [they] have developed considerably over the last decade by transnational organised crime syndicates”.
“While these phone calls appear to be random in nature, these scammers seem to be targeting vulnerable members of the Chinese-Australian community,” he said.
Ms Cai said those victims were usually students who had recently arrived in Australia, and many of them were high-school graduates.
“They are used to being taken care of at home. Now they have to be independent, but they don’t have the capability to navigate scams. That’s why they are the common targets.”
Ms Cai said she had learned through conversations with victims and their parents there was usually a lack of communication between the two before the incident.
Queenie Wu, a Melbourne-based clinical psychologist, echoed Ms Cai’s observation.
She said parents who had a close relationship with their children or contacted them regularly could usually tell something was amiss when they saw their children’s photos or engaged with the scammers.
“Children are estranged from their overseas parents due to the physical distance, [so] when a situation like this occurs, they tend to seek help from their friends instead of parents, but that can be a blind-leading-the-blind situation,” she said.
“Another point is that some international students come here with high expectations from their family. They are afraid of doing things wrong here that might impact their [stay here] or study … so they can be very worried and anxious.”
What can victims do if they are caught up in the plot?
According to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC)’s Targeting Scams June report, scams involving the impersonation of Chinese authorities accounted for the highest losses of all government-impersonation scams for 2019.
Last year, 1,172 reports of “Chinese authority” scams were recorded across the country by the ACCC’s Scamwatch, with a total loss in excess of $2 million.
In additional to financial losses, Ms Wu said experiences like virtual kidnapping could cause long-lasting trauma for the victims, including finding it hard to trust others.
“Also, it’s a violation of their privacy because fraudsters control a lot of their personal details. They are scared that they won’t have privacy anymore.”
A NSW Police spokesperson said it was often friends and family who encouraged victims to come forward and report the crime to police, as victims felt embarrassed or ashamed by what had transpired.
“The victims of virtual kidnappings we have engaged are traumatised by what has occurred, believing they have placed themselves and their loved ones in real danger,” NSW Assistant Commissioner Peter Thurtell said in a statement.
Victoria Police said anyone who received a call involving demands for money under the threat of violence should hang up, contact the Chinese consulate in Sydney to verify the claims, and report the matter to the NSW Police Force or Crime Stoppers.
A Victoria Police spokesperson encouraged people who believed they were a victim of the scam to submit an initial report via the ReportCyber website. Details are collected and sent to police for further assessment.
Anyone who believes they are in danger and needs immediate police assistance is advised to call triple-0, the spokesman said.
Virtual kidnapping is not unique to Australia. There have also been reports of such frauds in New Zealand and the United States.