Cyber kidnapping in US illustrates growing crime trend
The “cyber kidnapping” scam that extorted the Chinese family of a foreign exchange student studying in the US is part of a larger criminal trend that parents across the globe could fall victim to, experts warned.
Student Kai Zhuang was reported missing by his high school last week and later found “very cold and scared” in a tent in rural Utah after anonymous scammers convinced the 17-year-old to isolate himself, according to local police.
Once the teenager was alone in the wilderness, officials said the kidnappers sent a ransom demand and a picture – that Zhuang took of himself – to his parents in China and claimed he had been abducted. Zhuang’s family eventually paid $80,000 (£62,600) to the perpetrators.
Experts told the BBC that advancements in technology have made it easier for criminals to pursue cyber kidnapping schemes. While there is no clear data on the number of cases, they said, Zhuang’s experience is not an isolated occurrence.
“The way it’s being perpetrated in most cases, [it] could happen to anyone,” said Joseph Steinberg, a cyber security expert who has advised business firms and governments. “The crimes have gotten much more targeted and much more expensive.”
What is a cyber kidnapping?
Police believe kidnappers began manipulating the 17-year-old exchange student as early as 20 December, when he was seen with camping equipment in Utah.
Typically, cyber kidnappings involve criminals calling or messaging a victim to trick them into thinking a loved one has been kidnapped, though the person is actually safe, Mr Steinberg said.
Victims have reported hearing screaming on the phone while the perpetrator claimed their loved one was in danger to secure a ransom.
“They will do anything to keep you on the phone,” said Marie-Helen Maras, the director of the Center for Cybercrime Studies at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “They’ll threaten to cause harm if you hang up or if you try to contact anyone to frighten their targets into making rushed decisions.”
There have been several cases in which Chinese foreign exchange students in other countries – including Canada and Australia – were coerced into staging their own kidnappings to extort money from relatives, said Dr Maras, who has studied cyber kidnapping cases.
How common is it?
No data is available on the frequency of virtual kidnappings, which go largely unreported, experts said. They emphasised, however, that advances in technology have facilitated the crimes and made them easier to commit.
Mr Steinberg said he worries about the use of artificial intelligence to impersonate loved ones’ voices and coerce them into paying ransoms.
“The technology has reached a point where even loving parents who know their kids really well can be tricked,” he said.
Social media also allows perpetrators to study and collect information on victims before they make contact, allowing them to gain valuable insight on an individual’s life.
Criminals “can even spoof numbers to make it look like it’s coming from you”, Dr Maras said. “They are becoming increasingly better at obscuring the fraud.”
The crimes seem to be leading to larger payouts now, too, said Mr Steinberg, who noted that perpetrators are rarely caught.
In the past, criminals targeted more vulnerable individuals – such as undocumented immigrants and non-native English speakers – for small sums, he said.
But in the case of Zhuang, officials said his parents paid a hefty ransom.
“Cyber crime is probably the crime that pays the best,” Mr Steinberg said. “You can target people in different languages. You can do it from anywhere.”
How can the crimes be prevented?
Though experts said that anyone can fall victim to virtual kidnappings, people can take several steps to better protect themselves.
The first is simply being aware of the problem, knowing what personal information is public and staying vigilant, Mr Steinberg said.
But those who are targeted should report it to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center first.
After initially receiving an emergency call or message, Mr Steinberg also recommends trying to reach the loved one to verify their location. Families can also come up with specific phrases or keywords to use in emergency situations that perpetrators would not be aware of, he said.
Law enforcement agencies and telecommunications companies may play a role in preventing the crimes in the future as well by making improvements in authenticating and tracing the source of calls, Mr Steinberg said.
While it remains unknown how many victims are out there, experts said these small steps could help keep people safe.
“The reality is that we know that people just like us… have fallen prey,” Mr Steinberg said.
First appeared on www.bbc.com