A teenage Chinese exchange student who authorities say was the victim of an international online kidnapping scheme has been rescued after nearly freezing to death in a tent outside Salt Lake City.
Authorities say Kai Zhuang, 17, ran away from his host home Dec. 28 after cybercriminals convinced him his family in China was being threatened. His family told police they had paid a $80,000 ransom after Zhuang sent them a photo indicating he was being held against his will.
Investigators announced Sunday that they had found him alone and “very cold and scared” in a snowy canyon northeast of the city and released helicopter and drone video showing them evacuating Zhuang and taking down his tent. Temperatures while he was gone had dipped below freezing.
Zhuang’s disappearance drew international headlines, but authorities now say it appears someone tricked him into running away to force his family to pay ransom.
“We believed the victim was isolating himself at the direction of the cyberkidnappers in a tent,” police said.
Investigators said they’re working with the FBI and Chinese Embassy to find the kidnappers.
“The victim had no heat source inside the tent, only a heat blanket, a sleeping bag, limited food and water, and several phones that were presumed to be used to carry out the cyberkidnapping,” the Riverdale Police Department said in a statement Sunday. “The victim only wanted to speak to his family to ensure they were safe and requested a warm cheeseburger, both of which were accomplished on the way back to Riverdale Police Department.”
Police in a different Utah city said they had found Zhuang with camping gear on Dec. 20, got concerned because the weather was cold and took him back to his host family. He didn’t tell them he was already being controlled by the online kidnappers, police said.
When his family in China contacted his school in Utah last Thursday, police quickly discovered his camping gear was missing from his host home and tracked his cellphone to the Brigham Canyon area. They then launched an extensive search using helicopters and drones while an investigator hiked up the canyon.
“Riverdale Police Det. Sgt. (Derek) Engstrom hiked on foot up the mountainside, and came across the victim’s tent in a wooded area,” Riverdale police said. “Sergeant Engstrom contacted the victim inside the tent found he was alive, but very cold, and scared. The victim was relieved to see police.”
Investigators said Zhuang’s case represents a growing type of scam in which cybercriminals targeting exchange students, particularly Chinese exchange students, contact the student and their family separately, persuade the student that their family is being threatened, and force them to take photos indicating they have been kidnapped. The cybercriminals then use those photos to trick the family into paying ransom, police said.
“The cyberkidnappers continue to extort the family by using fear, tactics, photos, and voice recordings of the victim, leading the family to believe the kidnappers are with the victim causing them harm,” Riverdale police said.
This kind of online kidnapping is a more sophisticated form of virtual kidnapping pioneered in part by Mexican prison inmates who trick wealthy Americans into paying ransoms.