What is Cyber kidnapping? Meaning explained as missing exchange student Kai Zhuang found alive

Kai Zhuang (Image via Missing People In America/X)
Kai Zhuang (Image via Missing People In America/X)

Kai Zhuang, a Chinese exchange student in Utah who vanished last week, was found safe on Sunday, December 31, 2023, in the mountains near Brigham City. He was found “alive but very cold and scared,” according to a press release by Riverdale City Police Chief Casey Warren.

Zhuang, a 17-year-old foreign exchange student, was believed to have been abducted after he disappeared from his host family's house on Wednesday, December 27, in Riverdale, Utah. Concerns were raised after Zhuang's parents, who are in China, received a ransom note and his picture on Friday, December 29, 2023.

Shortly after he was found, in a press release, Riverdale police chief Warren said Kai Zhuang was the victim of an international “cyber kidnapping.” This is an extortion scheme where virtual kidnappers use deceptions and threats to coerce victims into isolating themselves and take photos that make it look like they’re being held captive.

The images are then sent to the victim's family who are then forced to pay a quick ransom. Kai’s family reportedly paid $80,000 after the “kidnappers” sent continuous threatening messages, including photographs that made it appear the exchange student was in peril.


Kai Zhuang was found “self-isolating” in a canyon near Brigham City

Four days after Chinese exchange student Kai Zhuang vanished from his host’s family home Kai Zhuang, a detective found him on Sunday, “self-isolating” in a canyon near Brigham City.

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In a press release, Riverdale police explained that Zhuang, who was a victim of Cyber Kidnapping, was coerced into isolating himself in a remote spot after virtual kidnappers threatened the safety of his family back in China:

“The kidnappers threaten the young foreign exchange students and their families, and they demand ransom. They tell them to isolate themselves and they monitor them through Facetime calls and/or Skype.”

Police said that when he vanished, Zhuang was already under the cyber kidnappers’ control for eight days. He was found after police combed through bank and cell phone records and found unexplained purchases of camping equipment. Police also uncovered a recent encounter with Provo police, who intervened when he attempted to set up a campsite.

On Sunday, investigators reportedly tracked him down to the campsite and found the victim isolating in a tent with no heat source. In a press release, police described the scene as:

“He had no heat source inside the tent, 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 that after he was found, Kai Zhuang requested to speak to his family to ensure they were safe and then asked for a cheeseburger.

“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 PD.”

In the press release, Chief Warren urged foreign exchange students to not fall prey to the extortion scheme and to reach out to the police.

“I want foreign exchange students to know they can trust the police to protect them and to work with police to ensure their safety as well as their family’s safety abroad.”

Police said that the investigation is ongoing and they have yet to identify the suspects in the case.

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Edited by Upasya Bhowal