Australian police have warned universities and Chinese officials about “virtual kidnapping” scams by criminal gangs that coerce foreign students to fake their own kidnappings and trick families overseas into paying ransoms.
Police said in a statement that eight students in the state of New South Wales (NSW) were targeted in “virtual kidnapping” scams this year, with overseas relatives paying a total of 3.2 million Australian dollars ($2.3 million) in ransom.
In one case, the father of a 22-year-old Chinese student in Sydney reportedly paid more than $1.4 million after being sent a video of his daughter bound in an unknown location.
Another family in China said they paid more than $14,000 after receiving a video of their 22-year-old relative bound and blindfolded via the messaging app WeChat. She was later found by NSW police safe in a hotel room.
The student victims are left “traumatized by what has occurred, believing they have placed themselves, and their loved ones, in real danger,” said NSW Assistant Commissioner Peter Thurtell in a statement.
“We have had a spate in the last few months where pretty much every weekend we have had a victim fall for one of these scams,” said Darren Benett, director of the crime command in the state of New South Wales, whose capital is Sydney.
“If you get one of these phone calls, hang up, ring the police, ring your university, but just don’t pay any money,” he added in a televised news conference.
The NSW police said that scammers were targeting vulnerable members of the Chinese-Australian community.
Scam perpetrators call intended victims in the guise of a local Chinese official to warn they have been implicated in a crime in China and must pay a fee to avoid legal action, arrest, or deportation, police said.
Some scammers tell victims to sever contact with family and friends, rent a hotel room and take pictures or video recordings of themselves bound and blindfolded, and then send the images to their relatives overseas to exert pressure, the police added.
“We need to take into account the cultural factors and the fact that the scams are very polished,” said state police official Peter Thurtell.