CRIME, POLICE + COURTS

Missing foreign exchange student found safe after ‘cyber kidnapping,’ police say

Jan 1, 2024, 12:13 PM | Updated: Jan 3, 2024, 11:53 am

missing foreign exchange student Kai Zhuang is found by authorities...

Missing foreign exchange student Kai Zhuang was found safe in the mountains near Brigham City, Utah. KSL NewsRadio has blurred his face for privacy. (Riverdale Police)

(Riverdale Police)

BRIGHAM CITY, Utah — Riverdale Police announced Sunday that officers had found a 17-year-old foreign exchange student who had been missing since Thursday. Police believe ‘cyber kidnappers’ had forced the teen to leave home and isolate himself through threats of violence.

Chinese foreign exchange student Kai Zhuang went missing early Thursday morning from his host family’s home in Riverdale.

Riverdale Police Chief Casey Warren said in a press release that Zhuang’s parents, who live in China, received a ransom request that same day. The request came with photos of Zhuang that made it seem he had been kidnapped.

Police found Zhuang on Sunday, camping along the mountainside near Brigham City. Warren said the teen was cold and scared, but safe. He’s now back home with family.

The investigation

Warren said investigators believe Zhuang’s disappearance was a case of cyber kidnapping.

Warren said that his department worked with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the U.S. Embassy in China and Chinese officials to investigate Zhuang’s disappearance. While investigating, the police department learned about a crime called cyber kidnapping.

In cyber kidnapping, kidnappers threaten a victim and their families to get money out of them. The victim is scared into isolating themselves and forced to make it seem like they’ve been traditionally kidnapped. Warren said the kidnappers keep an eye on the victim through video calls.

According to Warren, cyber kidnappers have recently been targeting foreign exchange students in the U.S.

The victims comply out of fear that their families will be harmed if they don’t comply with the cyber kidnappers. The cyber kidnappers continue to extort the family by using fear tactics, photos, and voice recordings of the victim leading the family to believe the kidnappers are with the victim causing them harm,” Warren wrote in the release.

During the investigation, Warren said Zhuang’s parents transferred $80,000 to bank accounts in the U.S. due to continual threats against their son.

Investigators found that the kidnappers had been in contact with Zhuang since Dec. 20, 2023. Police in Provo found Zhuang that day carrying gear and attempting to go camping. Worried about his safety, they took him back to his host family. The teen didn’t report the threats during this interaction.

Found

As authorities kept looking for Zhuang, they found that he had been in the Brigham City canyon area.

“We believed the victim was isolating himself at the direction of the cyber kidnappers in a tent,” Warren wrote.

Police and search and rescue teams launched a search effort to find the teen, concerned he might freeze to death if he continued camping.

They eventually found Zhuang in a tent, alive and safe. He didn’t have many supplies and was found with several phones that police believe were used to carry out the cyber kidnapping.

Warren said the teen was scared but relieved to see the police.

According to Warren, when police found Zhuang, all he wanted was to talk to his family and to get a cheeseburger. He got both.

Police will continue to investigate the cyber kidnapping

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Missing foreign exchange student found safe after ‘cyber kidnapping,’ police say