A missing Chinese exchange student has been found hiding in the woods of Utah, but only after his parents paid cybercriminals $80,000, reports the BBC.
Authorities say the parents were victimized by the cyber kidnapping scam.
Anonymous scammers convinced the boy, Kai Zhuang, his parents would be harmed if he didn’t hide himself in the woods. They then asked Zhuang to take photos of himself, police said. The scammers then sent the parents the photos and convinced them he had been kidnapped while demanding they pay ransom for his release.
“The way it’s being perpetrated in most cases, [it] could happen to anyone,” said Joseph Steinberg, a cyber security expert said to the BBC. “The crimes have gotten much more targeted and much more expensive.”
The Guardian reports authorities in Utah used phone data, bank records and purchases to track Zhuang down about 25 miles from Brigham City.
“Due to the cold weather in Utah this time of year, we became additionally concerned for the victim’s safety in that he may freeze to death overnight,” the Riverdale police department said to the Guardian.
A sergeant hiking up the mountainside discovered the boy in a tent. He had only a heat blanket, sleeping bag, some food and water and numerous phones.
According to Forbes, Chinese foreign exchange students and their families have been particularly targeted by this scam.
In some cases, the scammers have used artificial intelligence to imitate a victim’s voice and photo. Sometimes explicit images are used in a “sextortion” plot.
The Chinese Embassy has issued a warning encouraging Chinese citizens “to boost safety awareness, take necessary precautions, and stay vigilant against ‘virtual kidnapping’ and other scams.
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