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Updated Jan 2, 2024, 4:56pm EST
North America
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Semafor Signals

Chinese teenager found alive in Utah was the victim of a “cyber kidnapping” scheme

Insights from the Australian Financial Review, The New York Times, and The Guardian


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Winter forest with quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides) trees, the state tree of Utah, at the Nordic Center of the Sundance Resort, also known as Sundance Mountain Resort, which is a ski resort located 13 miles (21 km) northeast of Provo, Utah, USA.
Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket via Getty Images
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The News

A 17-year-old Chinese exchange student who went missing last week was found alive in a tent in Utah’s freezing wilderness, where he was apparently told to go as part of what authorities said was a cyber kidnapping scam. Police from the city of Riverdale, where Kai Zhang was attending high school, said his parents had transferred $80,000 in ransom money to bank accounts in China because they believed he was in danger.

The case is part of a growing trend where criminals extort money from families who have children or other relatives living abroad. Victims, who are often threatened with deportation, undergo traumatizing ordeals that may involve sending staged photos to their families intended to make it appear as though they are being tortured or otherwise harmed. Perpetrators “tell the victims to isolate themselves and they monitor them through FaceTime calls and or Skype,” Riverdale Police Department said in a statement.

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SIGNALS

Semafor Signals: Global insights on today's biggest stories.

Chinese international students are seen as prime targets

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Sources:  
The Washington Post, The Australian Financial Review

Authorities in the U.S. and Australia have warned that cyber criminals are targeting exchange students from China, who are often stereotyped as wealthy. The scammers frequently prey on their existing fears about visa cancellation and deportation. About 290,000 Chinese students studied abroad in the United States in 2022, though the number is declining. Criminals have gone as far as dressing up as Chinese police officers to visit students’ homes. These incidents negatively impact students’ financially and mentally, forcing some to take a leave of absence due to the psychological trauma, Vicki Thomson, a representative for universities that enroll Chinese students in Australia, told The Financial Review.

Cyber crime is on the rise, fueled by human trafficking in Southeast Asia

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Sources:  
The New York Times, United Nations

At least 120,000 people in Myanmar and 100,000 in Cambodia have been trafficked to work in cybercrime centers in areas where government oversight is weak, according to the United Nations Human Rights office. The New York Times documented the experience of one trafficked scammer, who said he was forced to create fake WeChat accounts and build relationships with victims. “These Chinese gangs are spreading a form of modern slavery,” the worker, Mr. Lu said.

Scammers are using artificial intelligence to clone voices

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Sources:  
The Guardian, NPR, Sixth Tone

The proliferation of artificial intelligence is making it easier for scammers to create fake kidnapping scenarios. Sixth Tone reported that telecom scammers in China have adopted AI technology to deepfake a victim’s face and voice, which they then use to orchestrate extortion schemes. Last year, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission issued a consumer alert warning people to be vigilant against AI-powered phone scams. A mother from Arizona testified in the U.S. Senate in June that she received a call from someone who had cloned her daughter’s voice. She warned lawmakers that artificial intelligence “corrodes our confidence in what is real and what is not.”

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