Chinese students in Australia are being targeted in fake kidnapping phone scams, extorting families out of millions of dollars in ransoms.
Police in New South Wales said that this year alone there have been at least eight reported cases of so-called “virtual kidnappings”, and the Australian Federal Police said in May that they were investigating at least 25 cases of kidnapping extortion scams targeting Chinese students across the country.
These scams tend to unfold in much the same way: a fraudulent caller—usually pretending to represent a Chinese government authority—convinces the victim they face legal action in China, as well as arrest or deportation. The victim is then persuaded to transfer money to offshore bank accounts or even fake their own kidnapping, sending photo “evidence” to their family in China who are duped into paying ransoms for the victim’s “safe release”, SBS reported.
The victims—predominantly Chinese students—have been coerced into cutting off phone and social media contacts, vacating their accommodation, and sending mocked-up photos of them tied up alongside messages to their families pleading for ransom money.
So far this year, fraudsters involved in the scam have obtained $3.2 million (AUD) in ransom payments—many of them ranging between $20,000 and $500,000. One family sent $2 million for the release of their daughter.
“The victims of virtual kidnappings we have engaged are traumatised by what has occurred, believing they have placed themselves, and their loved ones, in real danger,” said NSW Police’s Assistant Commissioner Peter Thurtell. “In these instances, it is often friends and family that encourage victims to come forward and report the crime to police, as victims feel embarrassed or ashamed by what has transpired.”
NSW’s Detective Chief Superintendent Darren Bennett claimed that “virtual kidnappings” of this nature have become much more prolific in the last 10 years.
“While these phone calls appear to be random in nature, these scammers seem to be targeting vulnerable members of the Chinese-Australian community,” he said. "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, procuratorates [officials in China responsible for prosecution and investigation] or the courts will contact a student on their mobile phone and demand monies to be paid or transferred."
A total 1,172 reports of “Chinese authority” scams were recorded across Australia last year, with a total loss in excess of $2 million.