Cyber Kidnapping

Cyber Kidnapping Is a Growing Crime Trend Across the Country

January 9, 2024

By Jill K. Sanders, Esq.

Under the law, kidnapping is taking a person and holding them captive against their will. In New York, kidnapping is a very serious offense. But now, this type of offense has gone virtual. Cyber kidnapping is a growing crime trend across the United States.


What is Cyber Kidnapping?

Cyber kidnapping, also called virtual kidnapping, occurs when the perpetrators tell a victim to provide pictures of themselves which appear as if the victim is being held captive. A victim will comply because they believe their family may otherwise be harmed by the perpetrators if they don’t comply. Then, those photos are sent to the victim’s family. Usually, the perpetrators use those photos to extort payment from the family. In most cases, no one is ever in actual physical danger.

According to the FBI, such scams have been around since the 1990s. Virtual kidnapping takes on many forms, and it is similar to other online frauds like sextortion. Scammers can also use artificial intelligence to perpetrate the crimes. The Federal Trade Commission calls these and other similar frauds “family emergency scams.” For example, the fraudster may call and claim a loved one needs bail money or cash for a medical procedure.


Recent High-Profile Cyber Kidnapping Case

In December 2023, a foreign exchange student named Kai Zhuang was reported as kidnapped. His parents, who were in China, had received a ransom demand in exchange for his safe return. Zhuang’s parents contacted school officials, but the host family in Utah claimed he was not missing. However, Zhuang did not return home later that day. Meanwhile, Zhuang’s parents transferred approximately $80,000 to the kidnappers after receiving threats. They had also received a photo of their son where it appeared he was being held captive and was in danger.

Over the next several days, local authorities teamed up with the FBI. The FBI briefed investigators on the idea of cyber kidnappings, believing that Zhuang and his family could possibly be victims of this type of scam. Thankfully, Zhuang was found safe and unharmed. He was found camping in a tent, where he had isolated himself after being threatened to do so by the kidnappers. According to police, investigators are continuing their search for the perpetrators.


If You’re a Target of Cyber Kidnapping

If someone contacts you and claims they have kidnapped a loved one, here are some tips on what to do.

Above all, remember that if you are being threatened or scammed, law enforcement will know how to help you. In an emergency situation, call 911. For non-emergency situations, call your local police department and ask to speak with an officer.

  • As a first step, try to independently verify if your friend or loved one is safe.
  • Remain calm and don’t panic. If you think clearly and rationally, you will make better decisions.
  • Don’t give out any identifying, personal, or financial information.
  • If you communicate with the perpetrators in texts or messages, keep copies of all messages. This way you can turn them over to law enforcement if needed.
  • When posting on social media, keep your travel plans private until after you’ve returned home.




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