New South Wales Police have reported numerous incidents of a new scam targeting young Chinese international students, known as ‘virtual kidnapping’, with scammers requesting more than $750,000.
‘Virtual kidnapping’ is an extortion scam which involves young people (typically international students) being told they have been implicated in a crime and are required to pay money to avoid deportation or being arrested.
In the reported incidents, investigators have been advised that the initial contact is made via a phone call from a person speaking in Mandarin.
The scammer claims to be a representative from a Chinese authority, such as the Chinese Embassy, Consulate or Police.
After the phone call, the scammer then encourages the student to continue communications through encrypted applications such as WeChat, WhatsApp, or Telegram.
The student is then threatened into transferring large sums of money into an offshore bank accounts.
The interaction is then reported to escalate, with the victims coerced into faking their own kidnappings.
The scammer then sends images to the person’s family, which depicts the student tied up or supposedly injured, and demands ransom payments.
The scammers continue to make threats and ransom demands to obtain money from the family.
This had led to families contacting police in New South Wales, worried for their relative’s safety.
The State Crime Command’s Robbery and Serious Crime Squad has been working with universities and the Chinese Embassy and Chinese Consulate in Sydney and Canberra in response.
Detective Superintendent Joe Doueihi explained: “the community should note that anyone calling them on their mobile and claiming to be from a Chinese authority, such as police, prosecutor, or the courts, and then demanding money be transferred is a scammer.”
In the past month alone, four known incidents of ‘virtual kidnappings’ have been reported.
In these incidents, more than $750,000 has been requested in total, with the individuals receiving threats unless they pay between $175,000 and $250,000.
Report incidents have included a 22-year-old woman in Sydney’s south-west, who transferred $20,000 into an offshore account after being contacted by a person claiming to be from the Chinese Police.
She was ordered to pay an additional $174,000. This led her to faking her own kidnapping to secure the funds from her family in China.
Investigators in NSW were contacted by her family, who were able to locate the woman safely before any further money was paid to the scammers.
A 23-year-old woman, residing in Sydney City, was also targeted by the scam.
It is reported that she received a message on Sunday 23 April 2023, which claimed to be from an overseas postal worker which advised that a package had been seized by Chinese police.
It is reported that she then communicated with the scammer on the Telegram app, who pretended to be a Chinese police officer that was investigating the supposed matter.
The scammers threatened her and her family, ultimately ordering her to stage her own kidnapping so that her relatives would pay the fake debt of $270,000.
Her family paid the scammer this sum before she was located safely in a Sydney hotel.
Police from Sydney City Police Area Command became involved after her friends reported she had been kidnapped.
In New South Wales, fraud offences, particularly those involving cyber-enabled means, have significantly increased in recent times.
The New South Wales Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research has found that cyber-enabled fraud has risen by 95% in the past 3-years, with this contributed to by numerous forms of scams.
Fraud is criminalised under section 192E of the Crimes Act 1900 (NSW).
The section provides that a person who, by any deception, dishonestly obtains property belonging to another, or obtains any financial advantage or causes any financial disadvantage, commits an offence.
The elements that the prosecution must prove beyond reasonable doubt are that:
- By deception, the accused person:
- Obtained property belonging to another, or
- Obtained a financial advantage, or
- Caused a financial disadvantage, and
- They did so dishonestly.
Whether the accused did something dishonestly is judged according to the standards of ordinary people, with the accused person required to know that their actions would have been dishonest according to this standard.
Deception is defined as any intentional or reckless deception, by words or other conduct, as to fact or as to law, which may involve the intentions of the offender or any other person.
It also may be conduct by a person that causes an electronic device such as a computer or other machine to make a response that the person is not authorised to cause it to make.
Obtaining financial advantage includes doing so for oneself or for another person and inducing a third person to do so, whether the financial advantage is permanent or temporary. The same applies for causing a financial disadvantage.
A maximum penalty of 10 years imprisonment is applicable.
However, if the matter is dealt with in the Local Court, the maximum penalty applicable is instead limited to 2 years imprisonment and/or a $11,000 fine for a single offence.
This offence is classified as a ‘table 1’ offence which means that it will be dealt with summarily in the Local Court, unless the prosecutor or accused person elects to take it to the District Court.
When the court sentences offenders for fraud offences, in assessing the gravity of the crime, it will consider the amount of money involved, the length of time over which the offences are committed, the motive for the crime, the degree of planning and sophistication and whether it involves an accompanying breach of trust.