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Teen Found Alive After Suspected “Cyber Kidnapping”

His family allegedly paid a ransom of $80,000 for his safe return.

A 17-year-old Chinese exchange student has been found safe after what authorities are calling a “cyb...
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A 17-year-old Chinese exchange student has been found safe after what authorities are calling a “cyber-kidnapping” attempt.

Kai Zhuang — an exchange student living in Riverdale, Utah — was reported missing by his high school on Dec. 28. Zhuang’s family in China has called the school to report they’d received images that suggested their son was forcibly kidnapped.

CNN also reported that Zhuang’s host family had no idea he was missing, as they told police he had slept in his bed the night before, and they heard him in his room the next morning.

Zhuang was found in a tent in the mountains on Sunday, hours after police had begun to search for him. Authorities said he was “alive but very cold and scared” as he had “no heat source in the tent, only a heat blanket” as well as “limited food and water,” per the outlet.

He was cleared of any medical concerns on-site and made contact with his family, police told the outlet. Zhuang also “requested a warm cheeseburger,” which police picked up for him on the way to the Riverdale station.

What is cyber-kidnapping?

According to CNN, the Riverdale Police Department believes the teen was a victim of “cyber-kidnapping."

Cyber-kidnapping is a type of cybercrime where online attackers target victims and demand ransom. The attackers may gain access to computer systems or data, force victims to isolate themselves, monitor victims through video chat, and use pictures taken in isolated conditions to extort money from loved ones.

Typically, the scammers will demand ransom in exchange for restoring access or preventing the release of sensitive information or the appearance of safety of a loved one.

Leading up to Zhaung’s rescue, his family paid approximately $80,000 in ransom money to Chinese bank accounts after receiving “continuous threats from the kidnappers” about Zhuang’s safety, police said.

At the same time, the scammers were threatening Zhuang, telling him if he didn’t meet their demands, his family would be harmed in China. The scammers ordered him to isolate himself in the woods and send photos to his parents, Riverdale Police Chief Casey Warren said in a Tuesday press conference.

Zhuang’s case is not the first of its kind, unfortunately. According to The Salt Lake Tribune this type of cyber kidnapping scheme is happening across the U.S., targeting Chinese exchange students and their families.

In addition, other forms of high-tech kidnapping scams are growing in popularity.

In April 2023, an Arizona mom reported that she got a call from fake kidnappers who used her 15-year-old daughter’s voice to make her believe that she was being held captive, and would only be released if she paid a ransom. The call turned out to be from scammers using AI technology to recreate her daughter’s voice.

How can you protect yourself from cyber kidnapping?

If you suspect you may be the victim of a cyber-kidnapping hoax, experts recommend immediately ending communication and contacting the local police. Never send money to the perpetrators.

“I want foreign exchange students to know they can trust police to protect them and to work with police to ensure their safety as well as their family’s safety abroad,” Riverdale Police Chief Casey Warren said in a statement.

The United States Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency has a few tips for how people can protect their online safety:

  • Turn on multi-factor authentication. Use additional security apps to ensure you need more than a password to access your sensitive information.
  • Update your software. Keeping your computer’s software updated will automatically add malware protection to your devices.
  • Think before you click. Beware of pop-up ads and links sent in emails from untrusted sources.
  • Use strong passwords. It may be more convenient for you to use the same easy password for everything, but that also makes it easier for hackers. You can use a password manager to keep everything organized.