In a chilling incident in Utah, a Chinese student, Kai Zhuang, was “cyber kidnapped” before being found safe. Learn about this alarming crime trend and crucial tips for self-protection.
New Delhi, January 03, 2024 – In a recent and alarming case of ‘cyber kidnapping,’ a 17-year-old Chinese student, Kai Zhuang, who went missing in Utah on December 28, has been found safe in rural Utah, approximately 40 km north of Brigham City. The young boy’s parents, residing in China, had paid a staggering $80,000 in ransom by the time law enforcement located him in a tent where he had apparently self-isolated.
The ordeal began when Zhuang’s parents, concerned about his disappearance, contacted his host school in Riverdale, Utah, suspecting a kidnapping. Subsequently, the school alerted the police, leading to a thorough investigation that ultimately located the teenager. Authorities believe he had been manipulated by cyber kidnappers since December 20.
What is ‘Cyber Kidnapping’?
Cyber kidnapping involves convincing the victim to hide and then coercing them to contact their loved ones for ransom. Perpetrators often demand compromising pictures, portraying the victim as bound or gagged, which are then shared with the family to intensify the threat. The virtual kidnappers monitor their victims online through video-call platforms, creating a harrowing illusion of a physical abduction. In Zhuang’s case, his parents received a picture indicating his alleged kidnapping.
The FBI defines virtual kidnapping as an extortion scheme that tricks victims into paying a ransom to free a loved one they believe is under threat. Unlike traditional abductions, no physical kidnapping takes place; instead, the perpetrators manipulate victims through deception and threats.
Rise of Cyber Kidnapping and AI Implications
Experts warn that the increasing use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) may contribute to the surge in such crimes. AI enables scammers to send voice notes that convincingly mimic the distress of a loved one. Last year, a woman in Arizona testified before the US Senate about receiving a call where her supposed daughter claimed to be in danger. The use of AI technology makes these scams more sophisticated and difficult to discern.
While there is no definitive data on the prevalence of cyber kidnapping, law enforcement experts assert that these incidents are on the rise. A BBC report from July 2020 highlighted eight reported cases of cyber kidnapping in Australia, all targeting Chinese students.
Protecting Yourself from Cyber Kidnapping
Experts advise being cautious with calls from unknown numbers, as cyber criminals can manipulate caller IDs to appear as if calling from a familiar number. Sharing personal information on social media increases vulnerability, so individuals should be mindful of what they disclose online, especially details about names, locations, homes, neighborhoods, or children’s schools.
Additionally, experts recommend verifying the well-being of loved ones before making any payments and promptly involving law enforcement if suspicious activities arise. Vigilance, skepticism, and a proactive approach to personal cybersecurity are crucial in preventing falling victim to such distressing cyber crimes.