Chinese students in Australia being 'kidnapped' virtually

8 Chinese students duped into 'abducting' themselves for ransoms totaling over US$2 million, no Taiwanese known to have fallen victim to scam

(New South Wales Police photo)

(New South Wales Police photo)

TAIPEI (Taiwan News) — Australian authorities are warning Chinese living Down Under to beware of "virtual kidnapping" after eight students were tricked out of over US$2 million by scammers posing as Chinese government officials.

New South Wales (NSW) police on Monday (July 27) issued a warning that Chinese international students are being targeted by an elaborate form of extortion fraud called "virtual kidnapping."

According to the police investigators in the southeastern state, which is home to Sydney, the victims are typically contacted by phone by a Mandarin speaker claiming to be a Chinese consulate, embassy, or police official, and communication typically continues via apps such as WeChat. Victims are informed that they have been involved in a crime in China or fallen prey to identity theft and that they are at risk for arrest or deportation.

The scammers then coerce the unwitting students into "abducting" themselves by having them abruptly break off contact with their friends and family, take photos or videos in which they appear bound and blindfolded in a hotel room, and send these to their friends and family, who then desperately wire large sums of money to offshore bank accounts. Demands for payment frequently continue until the targets finally turn to local authorities.

The eight "virtual kidnappings" reported so far this year have resulted in losses of AU$3.2 million (US$2.3 million), typically to the tune of AU$20,000 to AU$500,000 per demand. However, police in one Sydney suburb were contacted by a man in China who had paid a fraudster posing as a Chinese police official a staggering ransom of AU$2 million upon receiving video showing his 22-year-old daughter tied up at an unknown locale; she was found at a nearby hotel within an hour.

Chinese students faking their abduction to pay off scammers purporting to be Chinese authorities. (New South Wales Police photo)

The NSW Police Force State Crime Director, Detective Chief Superintendent Darren Bennett, said that "As hard as it is to believe, with the number of calls that are going out, they're still finding those odd people who'll fall for it," ABC News reported. He stressed that those targeted by the scheme should not respond by sending any money.

Bunnett said the "virtual kidnappings" are successful because they exploit people's trust in their government and that "vulnerable members of the Chinese-Australian" community" are favorite targets. He cited the Chinese Consulate-General in Sydney as stating that no person or entity in the Chinese government would contact a student on their phone and instruct them to transfer money.

An official of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Sydney told Taiwan News that the office has been advised of several Taiwanese students and holiday workers receiving "suspicious phone calls." However, he said the office is not aware of any instances in which Taiwanese nationals in Australia "actually fell victim to the scam."

The pro vice-chancellor international of Sydney's Macquarie University, Nicole Brigg, said, "Students can do two important things to protect themselves against these types of crimes — firstly, be aware they exist and secondly, ask for help early if they think it might be happening to them or someone they know," the NSW Police Force reported. She added that the school regularly alerts students to scams and that its staff stands ready to assist students who receive a suspicious call.

According to the Australian Competition & Consumer Commission's "Targeting scams 2019," "Chinese authority scams" centered on purported threats to the lives or freedom of Mandarin-speakers in Australia began to appear in 2018. Last year, they resulted in AU$1.1 million in losses.