Chinese students tricked into ‘virtual’ kidnap scam forcing desperate families to pay £1million ransoms in Australia

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MILLIONS of dollars have been fleeced from distraught Chinese parents whose student kids are being tricked into “virtual kidnap” scams in Australia.

The sophisticated extortion racket involves young victims faking their own kidnappings following phone calls from fraudsters – who then demand ransom payments from relatives for their safe “release”.

Eight incidents have already been reported to the NSW Police Force, with scammers successfully scooping $3.2 million (£1.8m) in ransom payments.

Scammers instruct victims to cease contact with their family and friends, rent a hotel room and take photographs or video recordings that show them bound and blindfolded.

These files are then shared with the victim’s relatives overseas, say police in Sydney.

When the victim’s parents are unable to establish contact with their child in Australia, they send large ransom payments in exchange for their “release”.

The caller will continue to make threats and ransom demands until they are unable to obtain any further payments, often resulting in the victim’s family making contact with police.

Police were told that, in one case, more than $2million (£1.1m) had been paid following ransom demands by a caller purporting to be from the Chinese Police.

In another case, the parents of a 20-year-old female student paid a $300,000 (£166,000) ransome to set her “free” – she was later found safe at a home in Sydney.

Video of another young woman, 22, shown to be bound and blindfolded, was sent to threaten her family in China via WeChat on May 30.

Cops in Sydney were told her family had paid $20,000 (£11,000) following ransom demands for her safe release.

Following inquiries, detectives located the woman at a hotel at North Sydney safe and well at about 1am the next day.

Det Ch Supt Bennett said: “Virtual kidnappings are designed to take advantage of people’s trust in authorities and have developed considerably over the last decade by transnational organised crime syndicates.

“While these phone calls appear to be random in nature, these scammers seem to be targeting vulnerable members of the Chinese-Australian community.

“NSW Police have been assured from the Chinese Consulate-General in Sydney that no person claiming to be from a Chinese authority such as police, procuratorates or the courts will contact a student on their mobile phone and demand monies to be paid or transferred.

“If this occurs, it is a scam.

“This year alone, NSW Police are aware of eight instances of virtual kidnappings where ransom payments that range between $20,000 to $500,000 and – in one case $2 million – have been paid.

“We are urging the community to heed our warnings not to respond to the caller’s demands.”

Another scam targeting uni students involves a caller tricking people they have been implicated in a crime in China.

Or they are conned into believing their identity has been stolen, and that they must pay a fee to avoid legal action, arrest or deportation.

Victims are targeted by someone usually speaking in Mandarin and claiming to be a representative from a Chinese authority, such as the Chinese Embassy, Consulate or police.

Using technology to mask their physical locations, scammers encourage victims to continue communications through various encrypted applications such as WeChat and WhatsApp.

The victim is then threatened or coerced into transferring large amounts of money into unknown offshore bank accounts.

Last year, 1,172 reports of “Chinese authority” scams were recorded across the country by Scamwatch with a total loss in excess of $2million (£1.1m).

More than 212,000 international students are enrolled to study in NSW.

And unis are preparing to welcome those on student visas to return to the state as Covid-19 restrictions are reassessed.

Assistant Commissioner Peter Thurtell said: “International students are in an unfamiliar environment and often living away from family and friends for the first time.

“The victims of virtual kidnappings we have engaged are traumatised by what has occurred, believing they have placed themselves, and their loved ones, in real danger.

“In these instances, it is often friends and family that encourage victims to come forward and report the crime to police, as victims feel embarrassed or ashamed by what has transpired.

“The community should be reassured that NSW Police will pursue these criminals through every investigative avenue available and that bilingual officers are on hand to assist those who speak English as a second language.”

Jihna Gavilanes, president of student services at Studee, told The Sun: “It’s absolutely abhorrent that international students are being targeted for their family wealth.

“Young people who choose to study abroad are vulnerable because they’re often still learning a new language and only just getting to grips with the culture, the area and the etiquette.

“Even if they’re talked into a virtual scenario, it’s still a terrifying situation to be put in at such a young age.

“These types of scams can often be very realistic and often make the student believe they are the criminal and if they do not comply they will be deported.

“If you believe you are being targeted by fraudsters, immediately contact the police and your university.

“Students shouldn’t allow this small handful of cases to put them off studying abroad but they should certainly be aware that it’s going on and remain alert.”

The website has an online guide detailing common scams, and how to avoid them.

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