11 July 2024

A Chinese exchange student who fell victim to a “cyber kidnapping” scam in which his parents were extorted for $80,000, was found alive but “cold and scared” in a tent in the Utah wilderness, police said.

Kai Zhuang, age 17, was reported missing on Thursday after his parents in China told officials at his host high school in Riverdale, Utah that he appeared to have been kidnapped and a ransom had been requested.

The case followed a typical pattern for cyber kidnapping, in which “kidnappers” tell a victim to isolate and provide pictures of oneself as if being held captive — photos that are then sent to the victim’s family to extort a payment. The victims comply under the belief their family will otherwise be harmed.

After analyzing bank records, purchases and phone ping records in a days-long search, police became convinced he was isolating in a tent some 25 miles (40 kilometers) north in a large area near Brigham City.

“Due to the cold weather in Utah 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 after he was found Sunday.

A sergeant hiking on foot up a mountainside discovered Kai’s tent — which had no heat source but only “a heat blanket, a sleeping bag, limited food and water and several phones that were presumed to be used to carry out the cyber kidnapping,” the department said.

The detective “contacted the victim inside the tent and found he was alive but very cold and scared.”

This handout photo released by the Riverdale Police Department on January 1, 2024 shows a police officer standing next with Kai Zhuang at the site where he was found in the mountains near Brigham City, Utah, on December 31, 2023,//AFP

After being rescued, Kai “requested a warm cheeseburger” and to speak to his family, which had paid $80,000 to bank accounts in China during the scam, according to Riverdale police.

Kai’s host family in Riverdale had initially been unaware he was missing, having heard him in the kitchen in the early morning the day of his disappearance.

Riverdale police worked with the FBI, the US embassy in China and Chinese officials to find the missing teenager, according to the press release.

The Chinese embassy in Washington warned its citizens living in the United States to “boost safety awareness, take necessary precautions, and stay vigilant against ‘virtual kidnapping’ and other forms of telecom and online fraud,” a spokesperson said.

Cyber kidnappers have been targeting foreign exchange students recently, and in particular, Chinese foreign exchange students, Riverdale police said.

by Agence France-Presse