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Cyber kidnapping warning

In light of a recent “cyber kidnapping” in Utah involving a 17-year-old foreign exchange student from China, the University of Utah Department of Public Safety cautions all campus community members, especially international students, to be mindful of these types of scams. 

In a cyber or virtual kidnapping scam, the perpetrator convinces a person their family member or friend has been taken captive and they need to pay a ransom to prevent them from being harmed. 

Audio files, images, and videos are often used to perpetrate the fraud. While it is suspected that artificial intelligence is sometimes used to generate these materials, in more extreme cases like the one in Utah, the victim is told to isolate by the scammer and required to send images, videos, or voice recordings that make it appear as though they are being held captive. The perpetrator often monitors the victim via video call and the victim cooperates because they believe if they do not, their family or loved ones will be harmed. 

After locating the missing student in Utah, the Riverdale Police Department issued a press release noting there is a recent trend of cyber kidnappers targeting exchange students, specifically those from China. In response to this incident, the Chinese Embassy in the United States urged Chinese citizens in the U.S., especially students, “to boost safety awareness, take necessary precautions, and stay vigilant against ‘virtual kidnapping’ and other forms of telecom and online fraud so as to protect their personal and property safety.”

If you receive a call that seems suspicious in any way, contact law enforcement as soon as possible. Whether you are being instructed to isolate and pretend you are abducted, or you are being told your loved one is kidnapped, law enforcement officials can provide guidance and support. For assistance or more information, call University of Utah Police at 801-585-2677. Officers are available 24/7. 

“For a myriad of reasons, people are hesitant to reach out to police when they encounter suspicious activity like this,” said Brian Lohrke, U Police operations captain. “We are more than willing and happy to answer any questions if you receive suspicious communications from someone you don’t know. It’s always easier for police to investigate at the beginning of a situation, instead of later on, when the problem has escalated.”

Here are a few tips from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to identify a virtual kidnapping scam: 

  • Incoming calls are from an outside area code
  • Calls do not come from the phone of the supposedly kidnapped person
  • Callers prevent you from calling or locating the person who is allegedly kidnapped and go to great lengths to keep you on the phone 
  • Wire or transfer service is the only way to send ransom money

If you receive a call demanding a ransom payment for a kidnapped victim, the NIH suggests the following: 

  • Attempt to slow the situation down by doing things like asking to speak directly to your family member or friend, or asking, “How do I know my loved one is okay?”
  • Try to buy time by repeating the caller’s request and telling them you are writing it down. Or tell them you need additional time to meet the demands. 
  • Ask the caller to describe the victim or, if applicable, the vehicle they drive.
  • If the victim speaks, listen carefully to their voice.
  • While staying on the phone with the alleged kidnapper, attempt to contact the supposed victim in another way, such as via call or text or through social media. Ask them to call you back from their own phone. You can also ask the alleged kidnapper to have the victim call you from their phone. 
  • Remain calm. Don’t directly argue or challenge the caller.
  • Contact law enforcement as soon as possible.