Buckle in, folks, because this is a wild ride. News broke yesterday about criminal gangs targeting international students in “virtual kidnapping” scams. The thing is, the kids weren’t actually kidnapped. They were forced to fake their own kidnappings as part of a massive fraud that raked in millions of dollars last year.
These scammers target Chinese students studying abroad in Australia, where they are likely to have a less robust support system. These vulnerable young people are a little easier to manipulate than other international students, according to CNN, because they grew up in a country with a strong authoritarian regime.
“Scams take advantage of people’s trust in authorities and fear of doing the wrong thing,” said the Australian Federal Police in a statement. “Victims can feel an array of emotions — from helplessness and humiliation to anger and guilt — but it’s important to know you are not to blame and there is help at hand.”
To pull off the scam, the criminals call phone numbers registered to a Chinese last name. If someone answers, the scammer starts speaking in Mandarin. That weeds out anyone who does not speak Chinese. The caller says that they are from the Chinese government and claims that the student has been implicated in a crime in China.
In order to avoid being arrested, deported, or having their family arrested and fined, the students are pressured to pay money. And in at least 8 known cases, they were convinced to stage their own kidnappings in order to get more money from their families.
The scammers instructed the students to rent an isolated hotel room and stage photos of themselves that make it look like they are in a hostage situation.
If it sounds preposterous, know that the parents of these students have shelled out anywhere from $15,000 to almost $1.5 million to save their children.
“On some occasions, [families] have basically paid every cent they’ve got,” said Detective Chief Superintendent Darren Bennett.
We don’t know exactly how many people were caught by this extortion ring because many victims may be too ashamed to report the crime. According to Australian law enforcement, the scammer ring is using call centers to blast their message to as many people with Chinese surnames as possible.
While the cases seem to be concentrated in Australia, and specifically New South Wales, reports of similar frauds have popped up in New Zealand and America.
“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,” said NSW Police.