Scammers are capitalising on the fear Chinese people have of the Chinese Communist Party and are trapping international students in New South Wales (NSW) while forcing them to act out fake kidnappings to extort their parents.
NSW Police say that in 2020 alone they have had at least eight “virtual kidnappings” reported to them and the scams have netted millions in ransom money.
Investigators have been told that fraudsters initially make contact with a victim via phone call. The fraudster speaks Mandarin and claims to represent a “Chinese authority” including personnel from the embassy, consulate, or police in China.
The caller then convinces the victim that they have been implicated in a crime in China, or that their identity has been stolen, and that they must pay a fee to avoid legal action, arrest, or deportation.
Using technology to mask their physical locations, the scammers continue communication with the victim through encrypted applications such as WeChat and WhatsApp.
According to police, some victims claim they are then coerced into transferring money offshore, providing bank account information, giving away their identity details, and in some extreme cases the victims are convinced to fake their own kidnappings, also known as “virtual kidnappings.”
The scammers instruct victims to cease contact with family and friends, rent a hotel room, and take photographs or video recordings that depict them bound and blindfolded. These files are then shared with relatives overseas.
Police said scammers have obtained $3.2 million in ransom payments this year alone. Such scams are effective due to the genuine fear Chinese people have of authority figures within the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) system. For years, Chinese living in Australia and relatives based in China been the subject of threats, intimidation and oppression from the CCP.
On June 17, a father in China paid $2 million after receiving a video of his 22-year-old daughter in Sydney claiming to have been tied up. The father said the ransom caller pretended to be from the Chinese police. His daughter was later found safe in a hotel in Hurstville following an investigation.
On April 22, officers from Sydney’s Ryde Police Station were contacted by a university concerned for the welfare of one of its students.
The student’s family from China allegedly told police that their daughter had been kidnapped. The family paid $300,000 in ransom demands from the scammer who had convinced the student they were from the Chinese police.
Other ransom payments have ranged between $20,000 and $500,000.
Detective Chief Superintendent Darren Bennett said virtual kidnappings by transnational organised crime syndicates had increased considerably in the last decade.
“While these phone calls appear to be random in nature, these scammers seem to be targeting vulnerable members of the Chinese-Australian community,” he said in a statement on July 27.
More than 212,000 international students are enrolled to study in NSW. With more students likely to return to the state after COVID-19 restrictions are re-assessed, police are urging the community to educate themselves on these elaborate phone scams. Targeted students can either hang up on such calls, contact their consulate, university, or report the matter to police.
On June 25, the Australian Consumer and Competition Commission (ACCC) warned that the local Chinese community was the target of “Chinese authority” scams (pdf) – involving fraudsters impersonating authority figures.
In 2019, losses to Chinese authority scams totalled $2 million across the country, an increase of 40 percent on the previous year.
The deputy chair of the ACCC, Delia Rickard, noted that a key mainstay in preventing these scams is “word of mouth” or telling others about the scam experiences.
“Many people who avoided scams did so because their friends or family had told them about the scams, or that the approach or experience seemed suspicious,” said Rickard.