On 14 May 2018, the Australian Federal Police issued a warning about a “new” international scam targeting, in particular, Chinese students in Australia. Typically, students are contacted by someone pretending to be from the Chinese embassy or consulate telling them that they’ve been implicated in serious organised crime in China/Taiwan and asking them to collaborate with their investigations. They’re told to hide themselves for a few days and cut off all contact, even with family members in China/Taiwan. The families then receive calls telling them their child studying in Australia has been kidnapped and a ransom demand is made.
Old wine in new bottle?
Chinese/Taiwanese people have been victims of scams like this since the late 1990s, and Chinese nationals studying overseas in countries other than Australia have previously been targeted – a similar scam occurred in Canada in 2015. The crime syndicate provides a standard modus operandi and notes to its members, teaching them how to mask the caller ID and what to say to build “trust” with and to convince the victims using basic personal information they have about the student (known as “social engineering” technique). The criminals usually collect personal information such as the student’s name, birthday, university attended and where they’re originally from. This information, though basic, is essential to build “trust” with the victims, both students and their parents, and convince parents that their child has been kidnapped. And, making crime investigation even more difficult, the crime syndicate is usually based in another country.
What’s innovative in this type of scam, compared with the earlier examples, is that the syndicate has chosen to target Chinese and Taiwanese international students. As the international student is separated from family, it’s hard for the family to confirm whether the kidnapping is real, as their child has gone into hiding (as directed by the syndicate) and can’t be reached. If the student doesn’t contact their family or leave a message with friends, the information that their child has been kidnapped starts to sound genuine and the parents are likely to pay the ransom.
Dealing with the crime
The transnational character of the crime has made crime investigation difficult. The victims – students and parents – are in different countries and, to make progress on an investigation, the Australian authorities need cooperation with Taiwanese or Chinese authorities*. Furthermore, members of the crime syndicates are highly mobile, and it’s often too late to secure evidence and arrest criminals by the time the police in Australia have received and actioned a request for investigation assistance. Or it might turn out that the call centre is not in Australia but in a third country.
With scams such as this it’s important to encourage reporting to the police and to raise public awareness of these types of kidnapping crime. We can see the Australian Federal Police, the Chinese embassy and the Taiwan Cultural and Economic Office in Canberra have all issued an alert to students about the scam.
The crime syndicate provides a standard modus operandi and notes to its members, teaching them how to mask the caller ID and what to say to build 'trust' .
It’s also important to educate the parents overseas, and for students and parents to have diverse ways of making contact with each other. For example, students could share with their parents the contact information of their close friends so that the parents have another channel by which to contact their children. The parents should also talk to their children about the risks of living overseas and have a special way or code to indicate to each other when they really are in danger. It’s important also to secure personal information and data. This includes, but isn’t limited to, schools securing their systems to avoid any leak of student information; students being careful not to put too much personal information online; and being alert when adding a new friend on social media.
* For more detail of this issue, read Lennon Chang’s Cybercrime in the Greater China Region: Regulatory Responses and Crime Prevention Across the Taiwan Strait (Edward Elgar Publishing, 2012).