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“Virtual Kidnapping” Scam Targets Chinese International Students

Scammers typically communicate through encrypted applications like WeChat in an attempt to coerce their victim into paying large sums of money into offshore bank accounts.

The University of Sydney is warning students of a complicated “virtual kidnapping” financial scam targeting Chinese international students, with a number of students  having already been affected in 2023.

The scam typically involves a caller claiming to represent a Chinese authority insisting that their student victim is either under investigation as a criminal suspect in China or that they are a victim of identity theft. The caller then insists that a fee is required to avoid consequences ranging from legal action to deportation.

The scammers frequently use Mandarin.

Scammers typically then commence communications through encrypted applications like WeChat in an attempt to coerce their victim into paying large sums of money into offshore bank accounts.

In some forms of the scam, “victims are convinced to fake their own kidnappings”. In such cases, scammers coerce their victims into breaking all contact with overseas family members. Victims are asked to “rent a hotel room and take photographs or video recordings that depict them bound and blindfolded”.

Scammers then use these files in an attempt to extract a ransom from the victims overseas family.

The University recommends that “if someone contacts you or approaches you and says you are accused of being involved in criminal activity and that you must give them money or personal information”, students should ignore all demands and refrain from speaking to the caller.

“Hang up the call, block the caller, and report the incident to local police”.

The University also warns students that callers may already have access to personal information and may use this information to appear trustworthy. 

The University has provided information detailing the typical process of a “virtual kidnapping” scam, however, clarifies that “scammers may vary their methods to avoid suspicion”. It is best practice to be cautious about any communication from an unknown caller.

The scam first came to the attention of the SRC in 2019, but allegedly ceased in 2020 due to Covid border restrictions.

The University is urging staff to be wary of the scam and has directed staff who become aware of an affected student to refer the victim to Student Support Services. Affected staff have been instructed to consult the staff intranet. External partners can also file a report with Student Support if they discover a student has been affected.

Students can access support outside of Sydney University business hours through the Sonder app. Students in Australia, including International Students residing in the country, can also access a crisis counsellor at any time for mental health support. To do so, contact the Mental Wellbeing Support Line by calling 1300 474 065 or texting 0488 884 429.

The University states that any student in Sydney who feels immediately unsafe should contact Australian emergency services by calling 000. 

To seek specific advice on a possible scam, contact the 24/7 Police Assistance Line on 131 444. Students can also contact the SRC or SUPRA during campus business hours to access a caseworker.

Anyone who has lost money, had personal details compromised in a scam, or suspects they have fallen victim to a scam in any way, should first contact their bank and NSW Police for advice. The University also provides the Student Wellbeing Team to assist students with “free and confidential health, wellbeing and personal support”.