SYDNEY • Elaborate “virtual kidnappings” are being used to extort money from friends and relatives of Chinese students Down Under, Australian police warned yesterday, after a spate of transnational scams was reported.
Police said conmen claiming to be the Chinese authorities had netted millions of US dollars in ransoms by scaring students into faking their own kidnappings.
The scammers – often speaking Mandarin and claiming to be from the Chinese embassy, police or consulate – initially say the victim is accused of a crime in China or tell him his identity has been stolen, before threatening him with deportation or arrest unless a fee is paid.
Police said the fraudsters then continue to threaten the victim, often over encrypted message services, until he transfers large sums into offshore bank accounts.
In some cases, victims were told to cease contact with friends and relatives, then make videos of themselves tied up and blindfolded, with the conmen using the footage to demand ransoms.
Police said at least eight cases have led to more than A$3 million (S$2.95 million) in ransom payments this year in Australia.
Other incidents have been detected elsewhere around the world. Australian police said the scams had been “developed considerably over the last decade by transnational organised crime syndicates”.
Victims are “traumatised by what has occurred, believing they have placed themselves, and their loved ones, in real danger”, New South Wales Police assistant commissioner Peter Thurtell said.
Over 1,000 “Chinese authority” scams were recorded last year by Australia’s consumer watchdog.
Exiled Chinese dissidents and members of persecuted ethnic groups have also reported such harassment, including threatening phone calls.
Chinese officials said no authority would contact students on their mobile phones to demand money.
The warning comes as Australia’s university sector tries to attract back international students online and prepare for any possible relaxation of virus travel restrictions.
Education is Australia’s fourth-largest trade – behind iron ore, coal and natural gas – with more than 500,000 international students enrolled last year, bringing about A$37 billion to the economy.
The closure of Australian borders to travellers due to the coronavirus pandemic has crippled the sector. And Canberra’s heightened tensions with Beijing have further threatened the flow of students to Australia.
Last month, China’s Ministry of Education warned students about “multiple discriminatory incidents against Asians in Australia” during the pandemic and discouraged students from returning to the country when the borders reopened.