A warning to international students, brought to you by StudyInsured.
A new (but old) scam is underway, specifically targeting Chinese international students: virtual kidnapping. It sounds bizarre when you first hear the words—how do you kidnap someone virtually? Doesn’t kidnapping require a person to be… physically there?
Apparently not. Scam artists have had to up their game and get more creative with their schemes over the years as security measures have been tightening up and the general population has become more aware of when someone is trying to defraud them. In comes virtual kidnapping.
While Canada is overall a safe destination for international students, travelling such a long distance away can naturally cause anxiety for students’ parents and loved ones left back home. This scam seeks to play on those fears by inventing a danger to the student that isn’t actually there.
It started as a telecommunications scam in Taiwan and China during the late 1990s. Criminal organizations taught their members how to hide their caller IDs and redirect phone numbers to let them convincingly impersonate someone else by phone, then gave them a script of what to say to the victims to manipulate them and get them to comply with demands.
The scam works as follows: first, criminal members collected personal information such as the victim’s name, birthday, the school they were attending, and where they were from. Once they had the victim’s general information, they would call the victim’s family and tell them their child had been kidnapped and demand a ransom. They would also play a recording of someone yelling in the background and oftentimes screaming “help me Mom/Dad” to make it more convincing. Unfortunately, a significant number of the people being targeted at that time fell prey to this scam and paid the ransom. When they realized the alleged kidnapping was false and their child was actually fine, it was already too late and there was no way to trace who had done it, or to get their money back.
At the time, mobile phones were used with prepaid SIM cards, making criminal investigation difficult as they were technically “burner phones” with no trace of who had owned them. As more and more of these phone scams were coming up, the Taiwanese government tightened up on the rules around buying prepaid SIM cards. But by then, these organizations had moved their operations—first to China, and eventually overseas to Eastern Europe, East Africa, or Southeast Asia and Australia. Moving their criminal “scamming” call centres to other countries made it much more challenging for Taiwan and China to investigate and prosecute these crimes.
Today’s version of the scam
What’s different today is that these criminal organizations have moved on to targeting international students from China and Taiwan. It mostly started in Vancouver, British Columbia, and has been expanding to Calgary, Alberta, and Winnipeg, Manitoba. There have also been some recent cases in Toronto, Ontario, as well some states in America. Setting their sights on vulnerable students who are away from their families in a foreign country makes it easy for these criminals, as the two victims (parents and children) are halfway across the world from each other, making it much more difficult to prove if the supposed kidnapping is actually true.
What happens here is that the students studying abroad are contacted by someone pretending to be from the Chinese embassy or consulate with a phone number to match, and speaking in their native language, saying that they are involved in a serious crime in China and telling them they must cooperate to make sure of their safety, and sometimes even threatening violence against their family. On occasion, students are even persuaded to make a fake video of their kidnapping to comply with the “government official’s” demands of keeping them safe. This material is then used to extort the student’s family back home.
Here, no one is held against their will or is actually going to be harmed—this scam is all done by deception and manipulation. What also makes this scam work is the sense of urgency and panic that’s caused in parents when they think their child has been kidnapped and that something very bad could happen to them if they don’t comply and pay the ransom demanded. In this emotional state, victims forget to take a moment to think and really listen to what is going on or to even really pay attention to the voice of the child that’s been “kidnapped.” Also, in this day and age, information is so readily available online that scammers can easily find a lot of information about the targeted victims, which makes it so much easier for them to carry out the scam a little more authentically.
What makes this kind of scam so simple is that the scammer can carry it out anywhere and there is no name or face to them—it’s almost like they don’t exist since it’s all done virtually. They take on the fake identity of a government official, then reroute phone numbers so their number matches the Chinese embassy or consulate, even while the victims and the criminal are all in different countries. The criminals are extremely mobile as they are moving anywhere and everywhere to avoid being prosecuted and to get rid of any traces of evidence they might leave in completing their scams. Even when investigations are getting close to prosecuting these criminals, most of the time it’s too late to get enough evidence to make an arrest since they have already moved on to another location.
The numbers and preventative measures
In 2017, there were about 20 extortion attempts with virtual kidnapping in Canada, and so far there have been three in 2018. The latest case was a woman in her early 20s studying in Vancouver, British Columbia, on a student visa from China, as well as a man around the same age studying in Calgary, Alberta. Both had gone into hiding as per the scammer’s instructions and their families were contacted for the ransom. However, local police were able to get ahold of the students and their families and conclude it was a scam and that no real kidnapping had taken place. These virtual kidnapping cases have become so prominent that the police in Canada had to issue a statement letting Chinese international students know that Chinese police cannot arrest them in Canada. They will have to have a legitimate contact from Chinese authorities who contacts the police in Canada or the country you’re in before any arrest can be made. The Chinese Consulate General also issued a statement warning students that if any Chinese citizens are involved in legal cases in Canada, the relevant legal documents will be mailed to them directly from Chinese diplomatic missions and that no phone call will be made to verify any personal information.
These extortion and virtual kidnapping attempts have a traumatic impact on students and their families. Several victims of these scams have spoken out about the stress they experienced when they believed that their lives were over or that their worst nightmares had come true with something happening to their child. There needs to be more public awareness on the virtual kidnapping scam and students and families need to know that in any case like these, where they are threatened with extortion, to report it to the police right away. And students need to be reminded that no one can simply be arrested in another country.
Tips to stay safe and be aware of scams
- If you are receiving threats, report it to the police.
- Don’t post everything about your life on social media, and restrict the privacy settings on the posts you do share so that they are “friends only.”
- Always secure your personal data and information.
- Share the contact information of your overseas friends with your families and vice versa, so they can get in contact with each other if they are concerned for your personal safety.
- Have a special code to indicate to your friends and family and vice versa if there really is danger.
- Callers trying to extort you will keep you on the phone with them as long as possible without giving you a chance to contact the alleged victim; they will make it seem very urgent that you pay the ransom to avoid consequences to your loved one.
- In these scams, money is only accepted through a wire transfer.
- If you are contacted, ask to speak to the victim and question how you can know they’re okay. If you are not allowed to speak to them, ask the supposed kidnapper to describe the victim and any personal information that not everyone would know.
- Take a moment to stop and listen carefully to the voice of the kidnapped victim to see if it matches what your loved one sounds like.
- If you’re on the phone with the alleged kidnapper, try to contact the victim from another phone or even try to reach them through social media.
- Buy time by repeating the request and telling them you are writing their demands down and explaining to them how you need time to get the money.
Overall, stay cautious with personal information, be aware of any new scams on the horizon, and know that you can always contact authorities for help.
The bottom line
For international students in Canada, the actual danger of something like kidnapping is incredibly low. While opportunistic scammers are getting more and more resourceful, by staying aware of the situation and keeping these tips in mind, students can safeguard themselves and their families from being tricked and can continue their studies in peace.
For more tips and information, visit the Ingle blog.