Police are sounding the alarm as little-known “virtual kidnapping” scams, run by transnational crime syndicates, continue to target international students in Australia.

In October alone, the New South Wales Police State Crime Command’s Robbery and Serious Crime Squad has already been alerted to three separate incidents, highlighting what they say is the evolving tactics of these fraudsters.

The troubling extortion method has been on the police radar for years. Still, in October alone, scammers have managed to fleece victims’ families of hundreds of thousands of dollars while demanding over $1,000,000 from desperate loved ones with bogus ransoms.

A “virtual kidnapping” is a sophisticated extortion scam in which young victims simulate their own kidnappings after receiving phone calls from criminals posing as officials.

These impostors then demand ransom payments from the victims’ families for their supposed release.

According to NSW Police, international students are often the targets.

The initial contact is typically established through a phone call, with the scammers usually speaking in Mandarin and claiming to represent a Chinese authority, such as the Chinese Embassy, Consulate, or Police.

They convince the victim they have become entangled in a crime in China or that their identity has been stolen. They then say a fee must be paid to avert legal action, arrest, or deportation.

The scammers use technology to conceal their physical locations and persuade victims to continue communicating through encrypted applications like Skype, WeChat, and WhatsApp.

The victims are then coerced into transferring substantial funds into obscure offshore bank accounts.

In some instances, victims are manipulated into faking their own abductions.

The scammers instruct victims to cut off contact with their family and friends, rent a hotel room, and create images or videos of themselves appearing bound and blindfolded.

These files are then shared with the victims’ relatives overseas.

Desperate families unable to reach their children in Australia often succumb to the scammers’ threats and ransom demands, leading to large payments in exchange for their child’s ‘release’.

The scammers maintain their threats and ransom requests until they can no longer extract further payments, often prompting the victims’ families to contact law enforcement.

NSW Police revealed on Wednesday that similar incidents have been reported to law enforcement agencies domestically and internationally, resulting in millions of dollars lost to these scams worldwide.

Detective Superintendent Joseph Doueihi, Commander of the Robbery and Serious Crime Squad, has emphasised the evolving tactics of the scammers.

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

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

“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 Doueihi warned anyone who receives a call from someone claiming to be a Chinese authority to exercise caution and verify their authenticity.

“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,” he emphasised.

“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.”

Police have released details of three troubling incidents this month alone.

Surry Hills Police Area Command investigated a virtual kidnapping reported by a 20-year-old man on October 4, 2023.

Police allege that approximately two months prior, the man was contacted by someone claiming to be a member of the Chinese Police.

The individual threatened deportation from Australia for alleged financial offences in China.

The scammers forced the man to communicate daily and meet fake Chinese police who eventually kept him handcuffed for two hours in August.

The scammers coerced the victim into serving ‘official documents’ on behalf of Shanghai Police to addresses across Sydney, Adelaide, and Victoria after the man’s family refused to pay the demanded $220,000.

In a separate ruse, South Sydney Police Area Command visited an address in Zetland in mid-October, where they found a 23-year-old man who had allegedly engaged in online communication with individuals impersonating the Chinese Police.

The scammers allegedly pressured the man to reach out to his family and request $500,000 to postpone his arrest for phony fraud offences in China.

In another instance over the weekend, Sydney City Police Area Command licked off an investigation after receiving a welfare concern report for a 23-year-old woman.

NSW Police allege her family had already paid approximately $288,000 to a Chinese bank account as ransom for her ‘kidnapping’.

The police found the woman on Hunter Street in Sydney, where she shared an account of events consistent with a virtual kidnapping scam. Investigations continue into all three cases.

Xiaoteng Li, vice-consul for the Chinese Consulate, told the ABC earlier this year that the victims suffered substantial financial losses and psychological stress.

Victims have also reportedly been hospitalised because of the trauma they suffered from the extortion.

The number of Chinese students in Australia has sharply rebounded as borders reopened following the Covid-19 pandemic.

It’s estimated that over 40,000 Chinese students are arriving in Australia this year, boosted by a ban by Beijing on online study at foreign universities.

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