Fake kidnap scam snares Chinese students
Eight Chinese international students living in Sydney have been victims of a "virtual'' kidnap scheme which has netted crime syndicates more than $3 million in ransom payments this year.
NSW police are now working with the Chinese government to warn the community of the elaborate scam crime gangs are carrying out as well as trying to track them down.
Known as 'virtual kidnapping' the sophisticated extortion involves young victims being convinced to fake their own abductions and then demand ransom payments from relatives for their safe release.
"These criminals are getting data which allows them to make hundreds if not thousands of calls to prospective victims,'' said Detective Superintendent Grant Taylor, head of the NSW Robbery and Serious Crime Squad.
"It almost exclusively involves someone speaking in Mandarin claiming to be a representative of Chinese authority, such as the Chinese Embassy, consulate or police and convinces them they have been implicated in a crime in China and they must make payments to avoid being deported, their visa cancelled or other threats of possible arrest,'' he said.
"The scenarios are varied but the motive is to instil fear in the victim that they face the prospect of having to return home and abandon their education,'' he said.
"Part of the scam is to convince the victim to fake their disappearance by booking into a hotel, not use social media or their phone after sending a message they have been kidnapped.
This often escalates into the target being talked into taking pictures of themselves tied up, blindfolded or a voice recording of them screaming for help to be sent to their parents, Superintendent Taylor said.
The whole operation is conducted over the phone and the victim is never in any physical danger. They use technology to hide their physical locations and the criminals encourage victims to continue communications through encrypted applications such as WeChat and WhatsApp.
The victim is then threatened or coerced into transferring large amounts of money into unknown offshore bank accounts. Once they do receive some money the crims will continue the extortion, upping the amount of money they demand.
"We normally are notified because the victims literally have no money left or they may confide in another member of the community who conveys to them that it is most likely a hoax and they should contact police,'' Mr Taylor said.
In one case this year a family transferred $2 million believing their daughter had been kidnapped and was in danger.
Police said if they receive such suspicious calls to contact them, the Chinese consulate or their University immediately.
NSW Police Force State Crime Command Director, Detective Chief Superintendent Darren Bennett, said police have engaged with the Chinese Consulate in Sydney to warn the community of such scams.
"Virtual kidnappings are designed to take advantage of people's trust in authorities and have developed considerably over the last decade by transnational organised crime syndicates," Det-Chief Supt Bennett said.
"While these phone calls appear to be random in nature, these scammers seem to be targeting vulnerable members of the Chinese-Australian community.
"NSW Police have been assured from the Chinese Consulate-General in Sydney that no person claiming to be from a Chinese authority such as police, prosecutors or the courts will contact a student on their mobile phone and demand moneys to be paid or transferred. If this occurs, it is a scam.
"This year alone, NSW Police are aware of eight instances of virtual kidnappings where ransom payments that range between $20,000 to $500,000 and in one case - $2 million - have been paid.''
The syndicates operate all over the world using a similar method in Canada and other countries where Chinese students are enrolled in overseas universities.
More than 212,000 international students are enrolled to study in NSW, and with preparations being made to allow those on student visas to return to the state as COVID-19 restrictions are reassessed, police are urging the community to educate themselves about these types of elaborate phone scams.
A report by The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) published last month called 'Targeting scams' found the 'Chinese authority' scam caused the highest losses of all government impersonation scams for 2019.
Last year, 1172 reports of 'Chinese authority' scams were recorded across the country by Scamwatch with a total loss in excess of $2 million.
Originally published as Fake kidnap scam snares Chinese students