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Terrifying Tale of Cyber-Kidnapping: Chinese Exchange Student Found in Utah

Terrifying Tale of Cyber-Kidnapping: Chinese Exchange Student Found in Utah

 By Charles Joseph | Cybersecurity Researcher
 Published on January 1st, 2024
This post was updated on January 2nd, 2024

What would you do if your child was thousands of miles away, and someone demanded a ransom for their return? This chilling nightmare came into reality for the parents of Kai Zhuang, a 17-year-old Chinese exchange student who made headlines recently in an alarming case dubbed as ‘cyber-kidnapping.’

Kai was studying high school in the United States when he was reported missing after his parents received a shocking ransom photo. Driven by fear and constant threats from the alleged kidnappers, his parents sent roughly $80,000 to bank accounts in China.

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However, on December 20th, 2023, this harrowing tale took an unexpected turn when Kai was found safe but alone at a makeshift campsite near Brigham City, deep within the mountains of Utah by Police Officers from the Riverdale Police Department.

Zhuang endured several days in a snow-encased dwelling, adhering to precise demands from online abductors that led to his seclusion. He depended on a blanket as his only source of warmth, with minimal resources like water, food, and several phones, presumably arranged in advance for the distressing event. Additionally, a sleeping bag was part of his survival gear. After initial safety assessments by the Brigham City Fire Department, which found no urgent cold-related health concerns, Zhuang astonishingly requested a basic but soothing item — a cheeseburger.

Despite the seriousness of Zhuang’s situation, his absence went undetected at home. His host family was equally surprised when police officers visited them on Thursday, as they had last seen Zhuang the night before his unexpected early morning departure. Unbeknownst to them, a storm of events was unfolding, all while Zhuang was right under their roof.

This series of events led Utah law enforcement to seek cooperation with international partners. They contacted the FBI, the US embassy in China, Chinese authorities in the southern region, and Australian contacts. Their collaboration aimed to address an emerging pattern, possibly linked to criminal activities. It underscores the broad impacts of “cyber-kidnapping” scams targeting foreign exchange students in unfamiliar environments, far from home.

In these scams, criminals usually threaten victims, forcing them to stay alone and demanding money from their worried families. They often keep an eye on the victims through video calls. The scammers are very organized and skilled at using fear and mind games to control the victims. These situations are confusing for security agencies around the world and show how deeply technology affects our lives, both in good and bad ways.

"Amateurs hack systems, professionals hack people."
-- Bruce Schneier, a renown computer security professional
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