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Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Australia Says Chinese Students Are Targets in ‘Virtual Kidnapping’ Scams

Since at least the 1990s, criminal gangs from Taiwan and China to Mexico and Cuba have been persuading families to pay ransom for simulated kidnappings.

By: New York Times | Sydney | Updated: July 29, 2020 1:34:56 pm
Australia Says Chinese Students Are Targets in ‘Virtual Kidnapping’ Scams Since at least the 1990s, criminal gangs from Taiwan and China to Mexico and Cuba have been persuading families to pay ransom for simulated kidnappings.

The young woman’s parents in China believed the video was real. It seemed to show their 21-year-old daughter pleading for help somewhere in Australia. She looked to be in pain, and the perpetrators pointed to only one solution: a six-figure ransom payment.

The woman’s family deposited the money in an offshore bank account. But it was all a scam. A few hours after the woman’s housemate contacted police in Sydney on July 14, she was found safe and sound at a hotel, where she had been lured by the scam artists.

Now, Australian authorities are warning that “virtual kidnappings” could be on the rise as anonymous criminals seek to exploit Chinese students in the country and their families back home.

On Tuesday, police in New South Wales said there had been at least eight confirmed cases this year, with more than $2 million paid in ransom for abductions that never happened.

Since at least the 1990s, criminal gangs from Taiwan and China to Mexico and Cuba have been persuading families to pay ransom for simulated kidnappings.

In the Sydney form of the scam, which authorities said they first started seeing a few years ago, robocalls deliver messages to thousands of random phones purporting to be from a messenger service. It says a package needs to be delivered. Those who continue on the call are greeted by someone speaking Mandarin who asks for basic identity information and promises to call back.

For the Chinese students in Australia, the return calls have come from someone who claims to be from the Chinese government, bearing bad news: The supposed package to be delivered holds illegal contents or is somehow connected to a larger crime that could get that person deported or imprisoned, or get one of their relatives hurt. To be safe, the caller tells the mark, the person must check into a hotel and turn off the phone.

The parents, far away, usually receive the ransom demand by phone and are then sent what appears to be evidence of a crime.

In one case from Sydney last month, a family paid 2 million Australian dollars ($1.4 million) to the unknown criminals. In the other cases, payments ranged from a few thousand dollars to more than $200,000.

 

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