Bound, gagged, ransomed: the dark side of international education

Australian authorities and universities sound warning over upsurge in bizarre and harrowing hoaxes

July 27, 2020
NSW Police virtual kidnappings scam hoax Chinese students
Source: New South Wales Police
An image from a virtual kidnapping case released by New South Wales Police

Australian authorities have reported an escalation of frightening hoaxes involving Chinese students and their families, with at least eight “virtual kidnappings” in and around Sydney netting criminals A$3.2 million (£1.8 million) in ransom payments this year alone.

Police in the country’s most populous state, New South Wales (NSW), have issued a warning following a spate of fake kidnappings in which fraudsters convinced students – typically women in their early twenties – to stage their own abductions.

Two such incidents have occurred since mid-June, when Times Higher Education reported an upsurge in scams targeting Chinese students – apparently perpetrated by their own countryfolk.

NSW Police said the victims were initially contacted by phone, typically by people who spoke Mandarin and claimed to represent Chinese police or diplomatic posts. The targets were convinced that they faced arrest or deportation over crimes in which they had become implicated in China.

They were coerced into ceasing contact with their family and friends, renting hotel rooms and taking photos or videos of themselves bound and blindfolded. The images were then sent to relatives in China along with ransom demands.

NSW Police has released details of four such incidents between April and July, each involving a female student aged between 20 and 22. In all cases, the victims were found in Sydney homes or hotels after they or family members had paid tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars – and in one case, A$2 million – to secure their safety.

Similar incidents have been reported overseas. State crime command director Darren Bennett said that “transnational organised crime syndicates” had honed their techniques over the past decade.

The perpetrators used technology to mask their locations and pressured the victims to communicate with them through encrypted applications such as WeChat or WhatsApp. Demands for ransom typically continued for as long as family members could be persuaded to pay.

“It is often friends and family who encourage victims to come forward and report the crime to police, as victims feel embarrassed or ashamed by what has transpired,” said Peter Thurtell, an assistant commissioner with NSW Police.

He said that the “traumatised” victims were convinced they had placed themselves and their loved ones in real danger. He urged victims to seek help and advice from NSW Police or Sydney’s Chinese Consulate.

Macquarie University said that they should also seek assistance from their institutions. “Students can do two important things to protect themselves against these types of crimes – first, be aware they exist, and second, ask for help early if they think it might be happening to them or someone they know,” said pro vice-chancellor Nicole Brigg.

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

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