Chinese Student Found In Utah After ‘Cyber Kidnapping’

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Police officers in northern Utah found a 17-year-old Chinese exchange student freezing but unharmed in a mountainous area Sunday after he was reported missing days earlier in what they described as a “cyber kidnapping.”

Kai Zhuang was reported missing Thursday after his parents in China contacted his high school, saying they received photos of their son along with a request for ransom, the Riverdale Police Department said in a news release.

Kai Zhuang was discovered “alive but very cold and scared” inside a tent in a mountainous area near Brigham City, according to the Riverdale Police Department.
Kai Zhuang was discovered “alive but very cold and scared” inside a tent in a mountainous area near Brigham City, according to the Riverdale Police Department.

Riverdale Police Department

According to police, Zhuang was found “alive but very cold and scared” inside a tent with nothing but a heat blanket and sleeping bag to keep him warm and a limited supply of food and water.

Police said Zhuang’s host family in Riverdale, in the Ogden area, told detectives they heard him in the house on Thursday morning and were unaware he had gone missing.

Zhuang’s family in China gave detectives a photo of what appeared to be their son being held captive and in danger, police said.

Zhuang’s family told investigators they transferred $80,000 to bank accounts in China after receiving several threats from the alleged kidnappers.

A joint investigation with Riverdale police, the FBI, the U.S. embassy in China and Chinese officials found that Zhuang was possibly a victim of a criminal trend known as cyber-kidnapping.

Surveillance footage and bank records revealed that Zhuang had purchased camping equipment on Dec. 20, police said.

His bank records and phone location indicated he visited the Brigham City Canyon area, about 25 miles north of Ogden, where police suspected Zhuang was setting up camp. Police said they feared he would freeze overnight.

Kai Zhuang was tracked to a tent pitched in a mountainous area about 25 miles from his host family's home in Riverdale.
Kai Zhuang was tracked to a tent pitched in a mountainous area about 25 miles from his host family’s home in Riverdale.

Riverdale Police Department

Zhuang was found inside a tent in a wooded area along with several phones believed to have been used to carry out the cyber-kidnapping, police said.

“Relieved” to have been found, Zhuang asked officers for a “warm cheeseburger” and to speak to his family in China to let them know he was safe, police said.

According to police, Zhuang’s case mirrors other cyber-kidnapping cases in the U.S. that have targeted exchange students.

Police said extortionists will contact foreign students, tell them to isolate themselves and convince them to take photos to make it appear they are being held captive.

“The victims comply out of fear that their families will be harmed if they don’t comply with the cyber-kidnappers,” police said.

The criminals convince the victim to send the photos to their family in a demand for a ransom. They may also monitor their victim through a video call, such as FaceTime or Skype, and then send the photos and voice recordings to convince the family their loved one is in danger, police said.

Marie-Helen Maras, director of the Center for Cybercrime Studies at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, told the BBC that there have been several cases of Chinese exchange students being coerced into staging their abduction to extort money from their family.

The Chinese embassy in Washington has advised Chinese citizens living in the U.S. to be aware of virtual kidnapping and other forms of online fraud, an embassy spokesperson told The Guardian.



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