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Virtual kidnapping scams have targeted international students, police warn

The plots have involved victims being tied up and photographed so the images can be sent to parents on smart phones to extort large sums of money.
An image released by police in Western Australia shows an international student tied up in a virtual kidnapping scam, WA police say
Posted at 5:41 PM, Jun 07, 2024

Authorities are warning about a rash of virtual kidnapping scams that have put families in fear and sometimes serious financial trouble.

Police say the scammers take photos of victims while tied up by somehow manipulating them into going along with the plot. The photos are then used to extort money from their parents to secure their safety and release.

Police say some students who were coerced into the scam resulted in payouts to criminals of over $100,000. The images are horrifying, appearing to show the students bound by rope at the hands and feed, laying on a floor.

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In details sent to Scripps News by police, the criminals are accused of sending messages to parents containing recordings and threats to their child's safety, while demanding money to be transferred to a bank account.

Police say that in at least one case, parents demanded proof that their son was safe. They viewed a video chat showing their 17-year-old son with his hands tied behind his back, and "with his mouth stuffed," police said in a statement.

Police said the suspect, who didn't show himself in the chat, could be heard in the background saying "You’ve seen your son. Send your money to me."

Images of victims were released by Western Australia Police with their faces blurred by law enforcement during the investigations.

Virtual kidnapping scams have police issuing warnings to students and parents

Scammers told the parents in that case not to contact police and said the nearly $7,000 they promised would not be enough to be able to meet with their son safety from an airport in Perth, Australia. The same day a friend of the family reported the incident to police. The student was located later at a hotel in town.

Police indicated that the victims weren't in any serious danger and the student told authorities the kidnapping was fake and part of a virtual kidnapping scam.

OTHER CASES

Police in Australia say there have been at least four similar cases since August 2023 where international students between the ages of 18 and 22 fell victim to virtual kidnapping scams.

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Investigators say the students are told they must pay money or they will be sent back to their country of origin or even imprisoned. If they can't pay, they are coerced into going along with the fake virtual kidnapping scam, police say. The scammers convince the students they are somehow linked to a crime and use information sometimes gathered from social media to convince the student.

Peter Foley, a detective superintendent, said the scams have caused serious psychological and financial hardship for families.

“The scammers prey on their vulnerabilities and exploit the distance between the victim and their families. It is practically impossible for the families to confirm that the victim is actually safe and well, and that no charges have been laid against them by foreign authorities," said Foley. "It’s likely our statistics do not paint the full picture and there may be more victims out there. “We encourage all victims to come forward. You are not to blame and there is help at hand.”

THE FBI HAS ISSUED WARNINGS

The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation says law enforcement agencies have been aware of virtual kidnapping schemes for decades. The FBI says the scams were once prevalent mostly to Mexico and Southwest border states but have even evolved affecting U.S. residents.

Authorities say the scams have evolved to take on many forms to extort money families made to believe their loved ones are being threatened or are in deadly danger.

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Special Agent Erik Arbuthnot of the FBI in Los Angeles said at one point "criminals were no longer targeting specific individuals, such as doctors... they were choosing various cities and cold-calling hundreds of numbers until innocent people fell for the scheme.”

The scams take advantage of smartphones and sophisticated internet enabled apps, and also occur over the phone. The FBI says victimshave been kept on the phone or kept busy so they have less of a chance of contacting law enforcement.

STAYING SAFE

As the scams evolve, police say it's important to educate family members on case studies and how to protect yourself. Police say if someone calls to make threats immediately hang up and call law enforcement.

Never give out personal financial details like account numbers. If you believe a scammer has your bank details, contact your bank immediately.