Recent cases reveal the evolution of a crime that often exploits worry over family members abroad with digital savvy and old-fashioned coercion.
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 had been out of touch for days. 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, many of whom are already on edge and isolated because of the coronavirus pandemic.
On Tuesday, police in New South Wales said there had been at least eight confirmed cases this year, with more than US$2 million ($2.9 million) paid in ransom for abductions that never happened.
"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," said Peter Thurtell, assistant commissioner of the New South Wales police force.
The recent spree points to the evolution of a crime that exploits oversharing and fear for a distant loved one with digital savvy and old-fashioned coercion by con artists. 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, often with personal information provided intentionally or unintentionally by the victims.
Last year, extortionists called hotel rooms on the American side of the US-Mexico border and convinced guests that armed enforcers were nearby and that they needed to drive across the border and switch to a Mexican hotel, where they had to take a screenshot of themselves that the criminals then used to persuade loved ones to pay a ransom.
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 — name, address, phone number, anything else of import — and promises to call back.
For the Chinese students in Australia — whose ranks have swelled in recent years, with 212,000 enrolled last year — 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. And, oh, don't tell anyone or else what's already bad will become downright horrific.
"Especially for Chinese students, here without any support from family, they get scared when they get information like this," said professor Lennon Chang, a senior lecturer in criminal justice at Monash University who has studied the scam. "The talented criminals understand this psychological emotion and use it as a way to lead the students under the pass."
The scammers use technology to bolster the fraud. Chang said they usually mask where they call from, presenting a number from the Chinese Embassy that can be found online. In some cases, they ask the victim to send a photo or alter what they find online to create an image or video that seems to show the person kidnapped.
The parents, far away, usually receive the ransom demand by phone and are then sent what appears to be evidence of a crime.
Worried about their children, perhaps after reading about actual kidnappings of Chinese students in Canada and in the United States, some parents in China comply. In one case from Sydney last month, a family paid 2 million Australian dollars ($2.14 million) to the unknown criminals. In the other cases, payments ranged from a few thousand dollars to more than $200,000.
"During this period of time, with the pandemic and with less human contact, the parents might not know who to contact if they get a message like that, or for the student, they might not be able to talk to people they trust to verify whether this kind of message is true," Chang said. "This kind of isolation might create some opportunity for criminals."
When police have been called, it has typically taken them only a few hours to uncover what had really happened. But the names of victims have been rarely publicised, and no masterminds have been identified.
On Tuesday, Australian authorities reminded people to report anyone they suspected of pretending to be from the Chinese government.
"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," Detective Chief Superintendent Darren Bennett said.
"If this occurs," he added, "it is a scam."
Written by: Damien Cave
© 2020 THE NEW YORK TIMES