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What is cyber kidnapping and how to protect yourself?

SALT LAKE CITY (KTVX) — A missing Chinese foreign exchange student who was found in Utah last week was a victim of “cyber kidnapping,” according to police.

But what is cyber kidnapping and how can you protect yourself from becoming a victim?

According to the Federal Bureau of Investigations, cyber — or virtual — kidnapping takes on many forms, but it is always an extortion scheme.

“Unlike traditional abductions, virtual kidnappers have not actually kidnapped anyone. Instead, through deceptions and threats, they coerce victims to pay a quick ransom before the scheme falls apart,” FBI officials explained.

The scheme works by calling or contacting family members and saying their loved one is being held captive. Family members are coerced into paying a ransom to ensure the loved one’s “quick release.” In most cases, the loved one is never in actual physical danger.

Typically, victims have reported getting calls and hearing screams in the background. In another version of the fraud, victims are told their family member is injured and won’t be allowed to go to the hospital until damages are paid.

In the case of Kai Zhang, the teen who was reported missing from Riverdale, Utah, in late December, police said it was a little bit different.

The Riverdale Police Department explained that virtual kidnappers have been known to target foreign exchange students. The kidnappers contact both the student and their families abroad, telling each that the other is in danger. They demand a ransom from the family while telling students to isolate themselves and monitor them through a cell phone, including the use of Facetime or Skype sessions. The victims are also convinced to take photos of themselves that make it appear as though they’ve been taken captive.

“The victims comply out of fear that their families will be harmed if they don’t comply with the cyber kidnappers,” said Riverdale Police in a press release. “The cyber kidnappers continue to extort the family by using fear tactics, photos and voice recordings of the victim, leading the family to believe the kidnappers are with the victim, causing them harm.”

How to protect yourself from cyber kidnapping

Police said that anyone approached by cyber kidnappers should not give them any money and should contact the authorities immediately while stopping all communication with the criminals.

“I want foreign exchange students to know they can trust the police to protect them and to work with police to ensure their safety as well as their family’s safety abroad,” said Riverdale Police Chief Casey Warren.

The FBI said the best course of action is to hang up and not engage with the caller, including mentioning your loved one’s name on the phone. If you do engage with the caller, attempt to reach the alleged kidnap victim through social media or on another phone to ensure their safety.

“Try to slow the situation down. Request to speak to your family member directly and ask, ‘How do I know my loved one is okay?’” the FBI suggested. “Ask questions only the alleged kidnap victim would know, such as the name of a pet. Avoid sharing information about yourself or your family.”

Both the FBI and the National Institutes of Health said calls typically do not come from the alleged kidnapped victim’s phones and callers will go to “great lengths” to keep you on the phone and prevent you from reaching out to your family member. They will also try to work quickly to get you to send them money.

If you suspect you’ve been the victim of cyber kidnapping or a real kidnapping is taking place, call 911 immediately and ask that the FBI be notified.

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