New ‘virtual kidnapping’ scam targeting Chinese students makes use of data shared online


A warning about a “new” international scam targeting Chinese students in Australia was issued by the Australian Federal Police on May 14, 2018.

In a typical scenario, students are contacted by someone pretending to be from the Chinese Embassy or Consulate telling them that they have been implicated in a serious crime in China or Taiwan, and asking them to collaborate with investigations.

The target is told to hide themselves for a few days and cut off all contact, including with family members in China or Taiwan. The families then receive calls telling them their child studying in Australia has been kidnapped, and a ransom demand is made.

International scams of this nature are hard to investigate, but there are things you can do to avoid falling victim to them.

The evolution of a scam

Chinese and Taiwanese people have been victims of telecommunication scams like this for decades.

Crime syndicates would provide notes to their members, teaching them how to mask their caller IDs and what to say. The criminals usually collect personal information such as the student’s name, birthday, university attended and where they are originally from. This information, though basic, is essential to build trust with the victims.

The scam starts in Taiwan

The first generation of the kidnapping scam started in Taiwan in the late 1990s.

Organised crime syndicates would call parents and tell them that their child had been kidnapped and demand a ransom. During the call there would be sounds in the background of someone crying and screaming, saying “Help me, Mum/Dad!” Sometimes they might have the name of name of the child and, occasionally, will have researched the background of the family. Lots of Taiwanese were caught in the scam and paid the ransom.

Since the sim cards in use at the time were usually pre-paid cards, and the mobile phones usually cloned, criminal investigation was difficult. This pushed Taiwanese Government to tighten the rules on purchasing pre-paid cards.

And then moves to China

Before too long organised crime syndicates with members from both Taiwan and China started to use this method to scam people in China.

Criminals set up their crime base on Kinmen Island (an island belonging to Taiwan located close to the Chinese mainland). From there they could connect to the signals provided by a Chinese service provider and scam people in China. Conversely, crime bases were set up in Xiamen, the China territory opposite Kinmen, using signals provided by Taiwanese service providers to conduct scams on Taiwanese people.

In both situations they could avoid being arrested as there was limited collaboration between Taiwan and China on criminal investigations. Collaboration between the two jurisdictions only began when the Chinese government realised the seriousness of the scam.

The scam comes to Australia

With the commencement of cooperation between Taiwan and China against the telecommunication scam, a number of cases were successfully cleared and suspects were repatriated between Taiwan and China for prosecution. To minimise the risk of prosecution, organised crime syndicates then moved to their operations to Eastern EuropeEast Africa or Southeast Asia (including AustraliaCambodia, Indonesia, Kenya, Thailand and the Philippines) in the past few years.

Moving the call centre to a third country not only made it more difficult to investigate the crime, it also made a successful prosecution more difficult.

Old scam, new tech

What is innovative in the recent scam compared with the earlier ones is that they have chosen to target international students from China and Taiwan who are away from their family. International students are more likely to be a successful target since it’s harder for parents based overseas to check whether the event is real.

With the advance of technology, people are now putting more information online. At the same time, student data is a popular target for hackers and a hot product on the online black market. Criminals are able to target parents, build trust with them and persuade them the scam is real using the detailed information they have about the family and the “kidnapped” child.

In the reported cases, the students followed the instructions of the criminal syndicates and hid themselves. When concerned parents cannot get in touch with their child, they tend to believe the scam is real and pay the ransom.

Criminal investigation is difficult

The transnational character of the crime has made investigation difficult. The victims – students and parents – are in different countries and, to make progress on an investigation, the Australian authorities need cooperation with Taiwanese or Chinese authorities. As the victims are not resident in the country where the syndicate is based and from where the scam is conducted, the police in the third country are usually reluctant to collaborate.

Furthermore, members of the crime syndicates are highly mobile and it is often too late to secure evidence and arrest criminals by the time the police in Australia have received and actioned a request for investigation assistance. Or it might turn out that the call centre is not in Australia but in a third country.

What students and families can do

With scams like this it is important to encourage reporting to the police and to raise public awareness. In this case, the Australian Federal Police, and the Chinese Embassy and the Taiwan Cultural and Economic Office in Canberra have all issued an alert to students about the scam.

Students and parents should have diverse ways of making contact with each other. For example, students could share with their parents the contact information of their close friends so that the parents have another way to contact their children. They also should have a special way or code to indicate to each other when they really are in danger.

Finally, everyone should be vigilant about securing personal data. This includes: schools securing their systems to avoid leaks of student information; students being careful not to put too much personal information online; and all parties being alert when adding new friends on social media.

Author Bio:Lennon Y.C. Chang is a Senior Lecturer in Criminology at Monash University