3 Steps to Reduce the Risk of Cyber Kidnapping:
On December 28, Chinese exchange student Kai Zhuang ran away from his host family out into the cold wilderness of Utah state. He told no one where he was going or the frightening reason why: Zhuang was being threatened by online cybercriminals who told him that they would harm his family in China if he did not meet their demands.
Zhuang was instructed to upload pictures of himself that made it appear he had been kidnapped and then to isolate himself from all human contact. At the same time, these scammers were contacting his family in China and demanding payment for Zhuang’s safe return.
Fortunately, the story has a mostly happy ending: On December 31, local police found Kai Zhuang in an unheated tent located in a canyon outside Salt Lake City. He was cold and scared, but otherwise safe and healthy. News reports say that Zhuang asked police if he could speak with his family to “make sure they were safe.” His family in China, in the meanwhile, was equally concerned for him and had already paid $80,000 in ransom to the criminals after receiving Zhuang’s (fake) kidnapping photo.
This frightening experience highlights a new way that scammers are using online tools to manipulate and steal from others. From halfway around the world, these virtual kidnappers are able to convince people that they are in complete control and the only option is to meet their demands. According to Forbes, Americans lost $8.8 billion to scams in 2022, including $2.6 billion to “imposter” scams, where someone pretends to be a loved one in distress in order to get money.
For family members of current or future international students, this new trend may be very frightening. As online tools become even more advanced, new methods of cyber kidnapping and similar criminal activities will no doubt increase. However, families and individuals can also take steps to help minimize the chance of being a victim of cybercriminals.
Read on to learn 3 important ways you can protect yourself and your loved ones from the danger of cyber kidnapping:
#1 – Practice Good Online Security
One of the best ways to avoid the dangers of scamming is to practice good online security in general. Your good online habits of today will help protect you from future dangers—both known and unknown.
Average criminals prefer easy opportunities. They like to go for the low-hanging fruit, and there are plenty of people in the world who don’t take steps to protect their information. Don’t be one of them! As an absolute minimum, you should always do the following:
- Use two-factor authentication. For any online account that contains sensitive data, you should enable two-factor authentication, which requires approval from an additional source (such as a cell phone app) before granting access. All financial, social media, and school accounts should have this protection enabled.
- Think before clicking. Emails and text messages from scammers contain links designed to steal your information or grant access to your devices. Often these messages can be very convincing! It’s good practice to avoid clicking links whenever possible by instead navigating directly to sensitive sites. Avoid installing search toolbars or other third-party web applications, as these increase the chance of compromise.
- Maintain strong passwords. It’s surprising how many people still use passwords that are easy for criminals to guess, or use the same password across all their accounts. Passwords are there to help keep you safe, so make sure they are strong!
Hopefully you are already doing these three things. If not, you can start today: go to your sensitive accounts and find the option to enable two-factor authentication, and then change the password while you’re there. Taking these steps will help encourage criminals to move on to other, easier targets.
#2 – Have a Family Safe Word
Criminals love to take advantage of situations where information or communication is limited. When family members are separated by distance, scammers can insert themselves and take control of the conversation.
This sort of deception is likely what happened to Kai Zhuang: the cybercriminals first convinced him of something that wasn’t true (that his family was in danger), and then manipulated him into helping them convince his family of another thing that wasn’t true.
When you are going to be separated from a loved one, it’s a great idea to set up a “safe word” ahead of time. What’s a safe word? It’s a special word or short phrase that no one else knows. Possible safe words include the name of a beloved childhood toy or pet, or possibly a favorite food item or vacation place that is easy for you to remember but hard for criminals to guess.
Once you set up a safe word, family members should only use it in times of genuine danger or trouble. Family members can also request confirmation of need by asking for the safe word. In cases of manipulation or uncertainty, intentionally giving an incorrect safe word to your loved one will be a sign that all is not okay. In this case, your next step should be to contact the police and tell them exactly what is happening.
Remember also that seeing your loved one’s name and phone number in your caller ID is no guarantee it’s actually them calling. As The Washington Post reports, scammers have the ability to fake these details fairly easily and will do all they can to move you to act quickly.
#3 – Don’t Engage
Cybercriminals aim to control your emotions and to make you reveal additional personal information to help with their deception. They do this by keeping the conversation going: the longer you engage with the criminal, the more personal information you are likely to share.
For this reason, the FBI says the best thing to do is cut off contact right away. Criminals try to take advantage of the confusion that emotion brings to convince you that you must act immediately, but this is usually not the case. After ending contact, try reaching out to your loved one directly through another means. There is a good chance they know nothing about what happened.
As reported by ABC4 in Salt Lake City, the FBI recommends that if you do choose to engage, you should be cautious and work to verify information: “Try to slow the situation down. Request to speak to your family member directly and ask, ‘How do I know my loved one is okay?’”
If you do believe that you are the victim of a cyber kidnapping or real kidnapping, you should call 911 right away.
Sometimes international students or residents may be fearful of contacting law enforcement, but such fear is unnecessary. Police Chief Casey Warren gives the following assurance (via ABC4): “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.”
Also, be sure to see my article about 4 Steps you can take to have Confident Conversations in English
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