NSW Police warns community over rise of 'virtual kidnapping' scams

Friday, 12 May 2023 10:21:03 AM

NSW Police is urging the community to be on alert following a rise in suspicious phone calls, also known as ‘virtual kidnapping’ scams, targeting Chinese international students.

In the past month alone, four known incidents of ‘virtual kidnappings’ have been reported to the NSW Police Force, with scammers targeting Chinese international students.

The scammers have requested more than $750,000 in total, with victims receiving threats unless they pay between $175,000 and $250,000.

Incidents of a similar nature have been reported to interstate and international law enforcement agencies, netting millions of dollars from victims around the world.

A ‘virtual kidnapping’ is an extortion scam that involves young people being told they have been implicated in a crime and need to pay money to avoid deportation or being placed under arrest.

Investigators have been told that initial contact is made through a phone call from someone usually speaking in Mandarin and claiming to be a representative from a Chinese authority, such as the Chinese Embassy, Consulate or Police.

Using technology to mask their physical locations, scammers encourage victims to continue communications through various encrypted applications such as WeChat and WhatsApp.

The victim is then threatened or coerced into transferring large amounts of money into unknown offshore bank accounts.

As the scam escalates, the victims are coerced into faking their own kidnappings before the scammer sends these images to their family and demands ransom payments for their safe release.

The families involved are led to believe the victim is in danger and a ransom needs to be paid to secure their ‘release’.

The caller will continue to make threats and ransom demands until they are unable to obtain any further payments, which often sees the victim’s family contacting police.

The State Crime Command’s Robbery and Serious Crime Squad provides a specialist response to all reported kidnap-for-ransom offences – both physical and virtual – in New South Wales.

Robbery and Serious Crime Squad Commander, Detective Superintendent Joe Doueihi, said detectives were working closely with universities and the Chinese Embassy and Chinese Consulate in Sydney and Canberra to warn the community of such scams.

“The community should note that anyone calling them on their mobile and claiming to be from a Chinese authority, such as police, prosecutor, or the courts, and then demanding money be transferred is a scammer,” Supt Doueihi said.

“It is disgraceful there are scammers out there are preying on international students who have come to Australia to study; most of whom are living in a new country and far away from loved ones for the first time in their lives.

“We understand that victims of virtual kidnappings may be traumatised or embarrassed following the incident – we want them to know there is no shame in coming forward to NSW Police for assistance.

“We have bilingual officers available who can help those who speak English as a second language and our detectives will continue to pursue these criminals through all the investigative resources at our disposal.”

Supt Doueihi advised anyone who receives a call involving demands for money under the threat of violence should hang up, contact the Chinese Consulate in Sydney to verify the claims and report the matter to the NSW Police Force.

Law enforcement officials are also working closely with the NSW Government and universities to provide support and resources to international students who encounter suspected ‘virtual kidnapping’ scams.

Incidents of ‘virtual kidnappings’ reported to police in the last month include:

  • On Sunday 2 April 2023, officers from Burwood Police Area Command commenced investigations following a report from staff at a university in Melbourne, who were concerned about the welfare of a 22-year-old woman in Sydney’s south-west. Police have been told the woman received a phone call from a person claiming to be from Chinese Police. The fake police officer claimed she had been implicated in a crime and would have to pay to prove her innocence. She transferred $20,000 into an offshore account and was ordered to pay an additional $174,000. The scammer demanded she fake her own kidnapping in a hotel to secure the funds from her family in China. Investigators managed to locate the woman safely before any further money was paid.

  • Officers from South Sydney Police Area Command were notified that images of an 18-year-old girl, appearing to be kidnapped, had been sent from an address in Sydney’s inner west to family overseas in China on Thursday 13 April 2023. The woman had earlier received a call from a man pretending to be a Chinese police officer who claimed she would be deported unless she paid $280,000. The scammer then directed her to WhatsApp and instructed she stage her kidnapping to send to family so the fake debt could be paid. Following extensive inquiries, the woman was located safely in a hotel in Sydney’s inner west before any further money was paid.

  • Officers from Sydney City Police Area Command commenced inquiries to locate a 23-year-old woman after her friends reported she had been kidnapped. Police have been told she was sent a message on Sunday 23 April 2023, claiming to be from a postal worker that she had delivered a package overseas that had been seized by Chinese police. She was directed to the Telegram app to contact the investigating Chinese police officer. The scammers threatened her and her family and ordered her to stage a kidnapping in order to pay the fake debt of $270,000. Her family paid the scammer this amount before she was located safely in a Sydney hotel on Monday 1 May 2023.

  • On Tuesday 25 April 2023, officers from Kuring-Gai Police Area Command commenced an investigation into the welfare of a 17-year-old boy after his family in China reported they had received photos of him kidnapped and injured. Police were told the teenager had received a message through WeChat from a scammer posing as a postal service worker. The scammer claimed there was contraband goods in a package under his name and it had been sent to Chinese police for investigation. The boy had then been told to pay $20,000 to prove his innocence and to stage a kidnapping to receive more money from his family overseas to pay the fake debt. Police were able to locate the teenager safely before any money was paid.

Anyone with information relating to incidents of virtual kidnappings should contact Crime Stoppers: 1800 333 000 or https://nsw.crimestoppers.com.au. Information is treated in strict confidence. The public is reminded not to report crime via NSW Police social media pages.