Inside an $80K 'Cyber Kidnapping'

Kai Zhuang, 17, isolated himself at the direction of bad actors, say police in Utah
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted Jan 2, 2024 7:45 AM CST
Updated Jan 2, 2024 8:09 AM CST
Exchange Student Threatened in $80K 'Cyber Kidnapping'
Kai Zhuang emerges from a tent, where he was isolating amid freezing temperatures, in Utah's Brigham Canyon area.   (Riverdale Police Department)

A missing Chinese exchange student was found safe in a tent on a snowy mountainside in Utah on Sunday after what police say was an example of "cyber kidnapping." Kai Zhuang's family in China had reported the 17-year-old missing to police in Riverdale, where the student had been living, after receiving a ransom note with a photo that appeared to show the teen being held captive. The family said they'd paid $80,000, per USA Today. Police used cellphone data to trace Zhuang to the Brigham City canyon area, where he was discovered "very cold and scared," per the Salt Lake Tribune. He had been staying in a tent with "only a heat blanket, a sleeping bag, limited food and water, and several phones that were presumed to be used to carry out the cyber kidnapping," police said.

"We believed the victim was isolating himself at the direction of the cyberkidnappers," police said. Riverdale Police Chief Casey Warren said Chinese foreign exchange students and their families have been targeted by individuals for ransom payments. The students are contacted via FaceTime or Skype, persuaded that their family is being threatened, and told to isolate themselves and take photos and voice notes which are then sent to family members. Zhuang had first tried to camp away from his host family on Dec. 20. Provo police found him with camping gear and returned him home without learning he'd received any threats. His family reported him missing Thursday, roughly a week later.

Riverdale Police said they feared the teen would "freeze to death" in the wilderness, per the South China Morning Post. Discovered Sunday in a large wilderness area, Zhuang "was alive but very cold and scared" and "relieved to see police," reads a statement, per USA Today. It adds "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." Investigators are still searching for the kidnappers. Zhuang's family reported having paid $80,000 to bank accounts in China "due to continuous threats from the kidnappers," police said, per ABC News. (More kidnapping stories.)

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