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Students forced to fake own kidnapping

virtual kidnapping
Chinese students are being forced to fake their own kidnappings by scammers. Picture: NSW Police

Authorities have issued a warning over a sophisticated “virtual kidnapping” extortion racket targeting Chinese international students.

Four cases were reported in April, with scammers forcing victims into taking photos of themselves as if they’ve been “kidnapped, tied up and gagged” before sending them to their families for ransom money.

Victims – who ranged from 17 to 23 years old – are contacted by scammers posing as Chinese authorities, police, or staff from the Chinese Embassy or Consulate before they are told they need to pay large sums of money between $175,000 and $200,000 to avoid being deported or being placed under arrest.

“When they’ve extorted all the money they can from these victims, it then escalates where they trick and coerce the victim into faking their own kidnapping and taking photographs of themselves in vulnerable positions,” Detective Superintendent Joe Doueihi said.

“Unfortunately, on all the cases we’ve seen, the victims legitimately believe they are speaking to Chinese officials and that the threats will occur if they don’t comply.”

virtual kidnapping
Police recorded about six cases of virtual kidnappings in 2020 before cases ceased due to Covid. Picture: NSW Police

Initial contact can be made via calls or on encrypted messaging apps like Telegraph, WhatsApp and WeChat. Police believe the perpetrators are “predominantly offshore”.

In one case, police say a 17-year-old boy was told by someone posing as a postal service worker that he had contraband goods in a package under his name that had been sent to Chinese police for investigation.

The teenager was told to pay $20,000 to prove his innocence and instructed to stage a kidnapping to extort money from his family to pay a fake debt.

Police became involved after his family in China reported receiving photos of the teenager appearing injured and kidnapped and were able to locate him safely and before money was transferred.

Superintendent Doueihi said the emotional toll on the victims was severe, with some “psychologically traumatised” victims requiring hospitalisation.

“It’s such an elaborate scam that they can talk to these victims for hours and hours and sometimes days on end,” he said.

“They absolutely convince them and psychologically trick them into believing they will be arrested and their families will be harmed if they don’t comply with their requests.

“They are psychologically traumatised.”

virtual kidnapping
Victims are manipulated by scammers to fake their own kidnapping in an attempt to get ransom money from their parents. Picture: NSW Police

Superintendent Doueihi said police would be working with Australian universities to increase awareness of the sophisticated scams.

It’s believed instances of “virtual kidnappings” have increased after Chinese international students returned to campuses after travel restrictions were lifted in January.

Superintendent Doueihi said about six cases were in 2020 before the crimes stopped until April this year.

“We attribute that to the fact that Covid is over. International students are now travelling again, and they’re coming into the country,” he said.

While authorities believe the communication is being made offshore, investigations into the scams have been difficult due to the criminal groups and offenders masking their identity and locations through encryption software.

“If you are a Chinese student in Australia and you receive one of these calls, and you have doubts about the legitimacy, I strongly suggest you contact the Chinese Consulate or embassy, and the NSW Police Force and seek advice from us,” he said.

Embassy of the People’s Republic of China’s third secretary police liaison officer Tony Zhang thanked NSW Police for their “tireless work”.

“The Chinese Embassy recognises the NSW Police has done a lot of work to protect Chinese citizens, especially Chinese students studying here,” he said.