Last month, a 17-year-old Chinese foreign exchange student in Utah fell victim to an alarming new crime trend called cyber kidnapping.

Kai Zhuang, who went missing on Dec. 28, 2023, was found "very cold and scared" when authorities discovered him in a tent in the mountains just outside of Brigham City three days after he disappeared from his host family's house.

People reports the teen was found on Dec. 31 with "limited food and water" and several phones believed to carry out the cyber kidnapping, just days after his parents received a photo that appeared to show their son being held captive, along with a ransom note.

From China, the student's parents notified Zhuang's high school about his disappearance. The school alerted local authorities, who carried out a search and rescue mission.

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“We believed the victim was isolating himself at the direction of cyber kidnappers in a tent. Due to the cold weather in Utah at 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 in a press release.

Zhuang's host family was unaware the teen had disappeared.

During the extortion scheme, Zhuang's parents reportedly sent $80,000 to various bank accounts in China after they received "continuous threats" from kidnappers.

Since being rescued on New Year's Eve, Zhuang has returned home to his family in China.

What Is Cyber Kidnapping?

According to the Riverdale Police Department per NBC News, cyber kidnapping takes place when a student — typically a foreign exchange student — is threatened by a remote kidnapper over the internet and forced to isolate while a ransom is demanded from their family.

To convince the victim's family that the student has been physically kidnapped, once the victim is self-isolating, they force the victim to take photos of themself in distress. The cyber kidnapper also monitors the victim via Skype or FaceTime to force them to comply, while simultaneously threatening the victim's family if the victim does not follow instructions.

The victim's family is extorted using fear tactics as well as "photos and voice recordings of the victim, leading the family to believe the kidnappers are with the victim causing them harm."

The alarming new crime trend has especially targeted Chinese foreign exchange students living in the U.S.

What to Do During a Cyber Kidnapping:

The National Health Institute notes the following things might indicate you are being extorted in a cyber kidnapping scheme:

  • Incoming calls come from an outside area code, sometimes from Puerto Rico with area codes (787), (939) and (856)
  • Calls do not come from the alleged kidnapped victim's phone
  • Callers go to great lengths to keep you on the phone
  • Callers prevent you from calling or locating the "kidnapped" victim
  • Ransom money is only accepted via wire transfer service

According to NBC News, officials say if you believe you are being targeted by cyber kidnappers, you should contact your local police department and stop all contact with the suspect(s) immediately. .

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