A Chinese student fled her Vancouver home in fear after online scammers threatened to harm her parents in China if she did not comply with their demands. Police say she’s one of three in the last month who have fallen prey to the extortion scheme.
All three victims and their families suffered financial loss in the so-called virtual kidnapping scheme, and the one who fled was eventually found in China.
New Westminster police said last week the young woman was contacted by the scammers through WeChat, a popular Chinese social media platform. The victim was told to cut contact with her family and not to use her cellphone or any form of social media.
The release also noted the student’s family was also contacted through WeChat and told their daughter was being held against her will. The online scammers demanded money in return for their daughter’s safety.
Vancouver Chinese Consul’s Qiquan Hu said through the joint efforts between Canadian and Chinese police, the victim was located without being harmed. He said the fraudsters kept ordering her to change her travel routes.
“She was very tired after the long travel … she didn’t realize she was conned until she was found.”
Mr. Hu added a small amount of money was involved in this incident.
Jeff Scott, New Westminster police spokesperson, confirmed the student attended Douglas College.
The college’s spokeswoman Regan Lal said the school cannot reveal any personal information about the student, but this is the first time such an incident has happened to their students.
She noted the college works hard to prepare its students for their time in Canada, which includes a robust orientation process that goes over potential risks that are unique to international students and those new to Canada – including telephone fraud schemes such as virtual abduction.
“We tell them, if they receive this kind of call, hang up.” Ms. Lal said in an e-mail.
Two other students from China were also targeted with the phony extortion scheme earlier this month, the Vancouver Police Department said.
VPD spokesperson Jason Robillard said usually, cases like this start when students receive a phone call, sometimes from a number that appears to be from the Chinese Consulate.
He said the victims are advised that they’ll be arrested by Chinese authorities and then are eventually convinced to make fake videos indicating they have been kidnapped or the victims of another crime.
Sgt. Robillard added those videos are then sent to the victims’ families who are extorted for money, and the victims then are told to go to a motel or a short-term rental to hide from Canadian police.
“They believe people on the other end are Chinese police and they’re fearful for that, and they do what they’re asked,” he said.
“We want to make that clear here today [to the students] that you will not be arrested by Chinese authorities in Canada.”
He said Vancouver police are working with Chinese officials to try to track down the suspects, who are likely located outside Canada.
“We’re still in the process of trying to locate where they might be looking to [phish] for victims.”
Sgt. Robillard noted that, in 2017, the VPD received 20 reports of similar extortion attempts. Although there was only one victim who actually went through the actual “virtual kidnapping,” there was “a substantial amount of money” involved in the cases.
The abduction scam has been happening for about a year and has also taken place in other major cities in the country.
Constable Caroline de Kloet, Toronto police spokeswoman, said she wasn’t aware if similar cases were reported to them lately.
But last November, three Chinese students in Toronto – Juanwen Zhang, 20, Ke “Jaden” Xu, 16 and Yue “Kandy” Liu, 17 – were reported missing, likely as a result of the scam. The students then were found within three to four days.
Sgt. Robillard said the fraudsters target young female students from mainland China.
Rob Gordon, criminology professor at Simon Fraser University, said people who are gullible, frightened, alone and unsupported are vulnerable to such schemes and added that warnings and messages need to be continuously sent to the people who are subject to this crime.