Police respond to three ‘virtual kidnappings’ as international students are reminded to be on high alert for scams

The NSW Police Force is urging the community to be on high alert for ‘virtual kidnapping’ scams that continue to target international students across the state.

In the month of October alone, three known incidents have been referred to State Crime Command’s Robbery and Serious Crime Squad, who believe the modus operandi of the scammers is changing.

A ‘virtual kidnapping’ is a sophisticated extortion scam that involves young victims faking their own kidnappings following phone calls from fraudsters – who then demand ransom payments for their safe release from relatives.

Investigators have been told that initial contact is made through a phone call from someone usually speaking in Mandarin and claiming to be a representative from a Chinese authority, such as the Chinese Embassy, Consulate or Police.

The caller then convinces the victim that they have been implicated in a crime in China, or that their identity has been stolen, and that they must pay a fee to avoid legal action, arrest or deportation.

Using technology to mask their physical locations, scammers encourage victims to continue communications through various encrypted applications such as Skype, WeChat and WhatsApp.

The victim is then threatened or coerced into transferring large amounts of money into unknown offshore bank accounts.

In some instances, victims are convinced to fake their own kidnappings – known as a ‘virtual kidnapping’.

Scammers instruct victims to cease contact with their family and friends, rent a hotel room and take photographs or video recordings that depict them bound and blindfolded. These files are then shared with the victim’s relatives overseas.

When the victim’s parents are unable to establish contact with their child in Australia, they send large ransom payments in exchange for their ‘release’.

The caller will continue to make threats and ransom demands until they are unable to obtain any further payments, often resulting in the victim’s family making contact with police.

Incidents of a similar nature have been reported to interstate and international law enforcement agencies, netting millions of dollars from victims around the world.

Robbery and Serious Crime Squad Commander, Detective Superintendent Joseph Doueihi, warns the modus operandi of the scammers appears to be changing.

“Virtual kidnappings have developed considerably over the last decade by transnational organised crime syndicates, and they continue to become more sophisticated.

“In some cases, we’re seeing evidence of the scammers talking to their victim for months on end,” Det Supt Doueihi said.

“We’ve also seen a couple of cases where the victim has eventually been coerced into then becoming the perpetrator and acting as a Chinese official to scam more students.”

Detective Superintendent Joseph Doueihi said anyone who receives a call from someone claiming to be a Chinese authority should be hyper-vigilant in checking their authenticity.

“While we are working with our law enforcement counterparts to investigate the origins of these scams, we are urging the community to heed our warnings not to respond to the caller’s demands,” Det Supt Doueihi said.

“If you are ever on the receiving end of similar correspondence, the best thing to do is contact the Chinese Consulate to verify the claims, as well as report the matter to the NSW Police Force.

“We want to remind victims there is nothing to be ashamed of coming to the police, as we continue to pursue every investigative avenue available to us to put an end to these types of scams.”

Incidents of ‘virtual kidnappings’ reported to police in the last month include:

– On Wednesday 4 October 2023, officers from Surry Hills Police Area Command commenced an investigation following a report from a 20-year-old man claiming he had been the victim of a virtual kidnapping. Assisted by the Robbery and Serious Crime Squad, detectives were told about two months earlier the man was contacted by a person purporting to be a member of the Chinese Police who told the man he could be deported from Australia for committing a number of financial offences. The man was ordered to communicate with the scammers daily, as well as meet two men claiming to be Chinese Police, who kept him handcuffed for two hours on Monday 14 August 2023. The man’s family were eventually contacted and directed to pay over $220,000 AUD; however, they refused. The man was then ordered to serve ‘official documents’ on behalf of Shanghai Police to four different addresses across Sydney, Adelaide and Victoria to individuals believed to be further victims of the ongoing scam. Investigations are ongoing.

– On Friday 13 October 2023, officers attached to South Sydney Police Area Command attended an address in Zetland where they found a 23-year-old man engaging with people online perpetrating to be the Chinese Police. It’s alleged the scammers were in the process of asking the 23-year-old man to reach out to his family and request $500,000 AUD to delay his arrest for alleged fraud offences in China. Investigations are ongoing.

– On Sunday 15 October 2023, officers from Sydney City Police Area Command commenced investigations following a concern for welfare report into the whereabouts of a 23-year-old woman. Police were told the woman was last seen about 3pm the previous day, and her family had paid approximately $288,000 AUD to a Chinese bank account as ransom for her ‘kidnapping’. A short time later, police located the woman on Hunter Street in Sydney, where she gave police an account of events that were consistent with a virtual kidnapping scam. Investigations continue.

Anyone with information about this incident is urged to contact Crime Stoppers: 1800 333 000 or https://nsw.crimestoppers.com.au. Information is treated in strict confidence. The public is reminded not to report information via NSW Police social media pages.

/Public Release. View in full here.