Several Chinese international students living in Sydney have become victims of a "virtual" kidnapping scheme that has generated more than $3 million in ransom payments this year alone.
NSW Police is now working with Chinese authorities and universities to issue a warning to potential victims while trying to crack the elaborate crime syndicate.
Known as "virtual kidnapping", the scheme involves convincing victims to fake their own abductions before demanding ransom payments from relatives for their release.
There have been eight known incidents reported to NSW Police with scammers tending to target Chinese international students.
NSW Police Force State Crime Command director, Detective Chief Superintendent Darren Bennett, said police had alerted the Chinese Embassy and Chinese consulate in Sydney to such scams.
He said "virtual" kidnappings have developed considerably over the last decade by transnational organised crime syndicates.
He said authorities would never contact a student via their mobile phone to suggest they've broken the law or identity has been stolen before demanding money be paid or transferred into unknown offshore bank accounts.
"While these phone calls appear to be random in nature, these scammers seem to be targeting vulnerable members of the Chinese-Australian community," Supt Bennett said.
Many students are even convinced to fake their own kidnapping.
In some instances victims are told rent a hotel room and take photographs or video recordings that suggest they are bound or blindfolded before sharing them with relatives. Payment is sent in exchange for their "release".
"If this occurs, it's a scam," he said.
Eight instances of virtual kidnappings have been reported to NSW Police. Ransom payments have ranged from $20,000 to $500,000, and in one case, $2 million was paid.
NSW Police Force corporate sponsor for the safety and wellbeing of international students, Assistant Commissioner Peter Thurtell, said scams had left victims "traumatised".
"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," he said.
"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."
Police are also working closely with the NSW Government and universities to provide support and resources to international students who encounter suspected "virtual kidnapping" scams.
Examples of reports made to police this year include an incident where a 22-year-old female student allegedly sent images – of herself bound – to a relative in China.
She was found safe and well but $2 million had been paid following ransom demands by a caller pretending to be Chinese police.
Last month a report by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission called Targeting Scams found the "Chinese authority" scam caused the highest losses of all government impersonation scams for 2019.
In 2019 1172 reports of "Chinese authority" scams were recorded across the country by Scamwatch with a total loss in excess of $2 million.
More than 212,000 international students are enrolled to study in NSW.
NSW Police will address the media today.