Cyber criminals are targeting Chinese and Taiwanese students in Australia via an elaborate kidnapping scam.
The Australian Federal Police said the scheme has already fleeced victims and their families of $2 million.
Commander David McLean, the cybercrime operations manager, said the scam takes various forms.
“Most commonly we have unsolicited calls to potential victims in Australia, purporting to represent the people in authority in China and suggesting to intending victims here they have been involved in some sort of offence in China or elsewhere, for which they’re being held responsible,” Commander McLean said.
The scammers threaten the students with deportation from Australia or some kind of criminal punishment.
The victims are then coerced into providing their identification details or money to get out of the supposed trouble they’re in.
Commander McLean said there are also cases where the student is told they have to hide in a hotel room, provide compromising photos of themselves and cut off all contact.
This simulates a kidnapping.
“So having tricked the victims in Australia into providing the photographs, and money and documents and other things, they then present the information back to the unknowing families in China to suggest that their children who are abroad are in trouble,” Commander McLean said.
“So quite circular in a sense … very skilled, very cunning.”
The AFP is aware of about 25 cases, but Commander McLean said there are probably far more victims that haven’t come forward.
‘They pretended to be the Chinese embassy’
Sarah (not her real name) is a 21-year-old Chinese student studying in Victoria.
She said she felt foolish and betrayed after being coerced into giving away her personal information.
“So someone just called me up and they pretended to be the Chinese embassy and they were trying to say I was involved in a case in China,” Sarah said.
“I put trust on them, and all of a sudden it was a scam. I feel so stupid and at the same time it was so scary as well.”
Sarah said she spoke with four different people over the phone for about three hours, while they slowly extracted her personal information.
She said they were very convincing.
“They speak very conventionally and normally and they have the same number as the local police in China … so in that way I was like ‘Oh that’s real’.”
But Sarah is one of the luckier ones.
Her mother was alerted by authentic Chinese authorities about what was going on, and she contacted Sarah before any money was fleeced.
Scammers know students’ names and backgrounds
Doctor Lennon Chang, a criminologist with Monash University, said these criminal syndicates and kidnapping scams are well established and common in China.
But now they’re targeting students who are vulnerable because they’re far from home.
“The offenders or crime syndicates from China or Taiwan … they might have done this scam for a very long time but they just changed from one target to another,” he said.
“The reason why they are so successful is that they know the culture well and they have the names and backgrounds of the students.”
Doctor Chang said it will be challenging to track down these syndicates because they are able to adapt their communication strategies.
“They find a call centre somewhere else in other countries, like even Australia, Kenya or Indonesia. And they are calling from these countries to scam people. By doing this they can avoid the crime investigation,” he said.
“When police want to investigate this crime they need to collaborate with third parties in other countries and that can delay the investigation while the criminals go somewhere else.”
AFP working with Interpol, universities to track down scammers
The AFP said it is collaborating with its Interpol post in China to track down the perpetrators.
And it is working with universities in Australia to warn students.
Phil Honeywood, the CEO of the International Education Association of Australia, said it is essential the students are protected.
“Clearly students are very good on social media, they talk to one another and it’s been identified by Chinese students as something to watch out for,” Mr Honeywood said.