In chilling con, ‘virtual kidnappers’ trick Vancouver’s Chinese students into filming fake hostage videos - then convince parents to pay ransom
How do hostage hoaxers persuade young mainland women to make their own ransom videos, destroy their phones and go into hiding?
Chinese students in Canada are being targeted by “virtual kidnappers” using a chilling and elaborate scam that tricks them into filming role-playing “hostage videos” that are then used to extract ransoms from family members in China.
Vancouver police said that two separate ransoms had been paid over the weekend, and that there were 20 similar cases last year, though not all were taken as far.
Such telephone scams typically involve convincing targets to hand over money themselves to evade or resolve a non-existent criminal investigation in China. But the virtual kidnappings described by Vancouver police on Wednesday were far more complex.
Terrified and confused young students were persuaded to film their own fake hostage videos, destroy their mobile phones, speak in code and go into hiding over the course of several days, police said.
Sergeant Jason Robillard said that the scam would begin when a mainland Chinese student, typically a woman in her early 20s, received a call claiming to be from the Chinese Consulate. The caller would convince the student that she was a target or suspect in a criminal plot, and at risk of being arrested herself.
The scammers somehow managed to have the actual consulate number appear on caller ID, Robillard said.
“They are advised there is a warrant for their arrest in China, or that the Chinese police need their help with an investigation. The suspects eventually convince the victim to make fake videos indicating they have been kidnapped or are the victim of another crime,” he said.
The victims were told that the videos were some kind of re-enactment needed by Chinese police, and that if they did not cooperate, they or their relatives would be arrested. He did not elaborate on precisely what they were told.
The victims were then told to go to a motel or a short-term rented property to hide from Canadian police. With them out of touch with their families, the videos were sent to their relatives, who were persuaded to pay a ransom.
“They convince [the students] over days of speaking to them to destroy their phone, get a new phone, talk in code,” Robillard said.
“They really believe they are working with Chinese police … and that they may be arrested, or their parents arrested, if they do not cooperate.”
Robillard said it was a “horrifying experience” for relatives to receive the videos.
“We want to remind all foreign students that the Chinese police will not arrest you in Canada, or ask you to take photos or videos of yourselves pretending to be the victim of crime,” said Robillard.
“Legitimate contact from the Chinese authorities will be through your local police. We are here to help you. If you are confused or scared, reach out to your local police department in Canada.”
He said victims were specifically targeted as people who would believe they were at risk of arrest by Chinese authorities, but did not elaborate. “They are saying other things that we won’t get into, but … they believe the people on the other end to be Chinese police, and they are fearful of that, and they do what they are asked.”
Only one of the 20 cases in 2017 went as far as completing fake kidnapping videos like those involved in the recent cases, Robillard said, but “at every stage, they are trying to extract money”.
The VPD’s Major Crime Section is investigating. However, the suspects are not believed to be in Canada.
The phone scam, or variations of it, does not appear to be restricted to Vancouver. Last August, the Chinese consulate in New York warned on its website about fraudsters claiming to be calling from the consulate.
“Do not disclose your Social Security number, credit cards number and bank account information to anyone who claims to be a staff from us,” it said.
Chinese officials and other police agencies are helping with the VPD investigation. Anyone with information was asked to call the VPD’s Major Crime Section in Canada, at +1 604-717-3679, or Crime Stoppers, anonymously, at 1-800-222-8477.
The Chinese Consulate in Vancouver did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment.