An elaborate “virtual kidnapping” scheme that targetted a student and his family has the Calgary police warning the city’s international student community not to be fooled by these internet-based scammers.
Police said they have seen two cases of this scam in the city.
“On Sunday, May 5, a family living in China, who had a son studying abroad in Calgary, contacted their local police agency to report a ransom request they received through their son’s social media account,” a Calgary police news release said Friday.
Police said the alleged scammers said that the student had been kidnapped in Calgary and if the family didn’t pay the ransom, the man would be harmed.
Calgary police said they were contacted by Chinese law enforcement authorities and investigators began looking for the supposedly kidnapped student, police said.
“Detectives were able to quickly track down the family’s son who had also been contacted by the scammers and had been convinced to hide out at a Calgary hotel,” the news release said.
Calgary police said there have been similar “virtual kidnappings” in other cities across the country and that the scammers use similar techniques to try to get money out of their victims.
Sometimes the scammers claim to be law enforcement officials and threaten to arrest and deport the victim, police said.
“Offenders directed the victim to get rid of all communication devices and credit cards, which could be traced, making it impossible for family members to reach them,” police said. “At the same time, scammers were contacting the victim’s family to make ransom demands.”
Police said in the news release that the scammers also use video as a way to convince the victim’s family that it’s a legitimate kidnapping, showing the victim “under duress.”
“These videos are often edited from videos that the scammers have taken while posing as government officials,” police said in the release.
Police said scammers use a variety of “aggressive techniques” to gain compliance from the victim and their families. Often, certain behaviours from a friend or loved may indicate that they have been targetted by the scammers. Police released the following list of “red flags” for friends, family and others to be on the lookout for:
- Long phone calls: the scammer may force the victim to stay on the phone for hours at a time — and they’ll force the victim to not tell anyone who they are on the line with.
- Calls from phone numbers that appear to come from government agencies, the police or consulates — also known as “spoofing.” These official-looking phone numbers have been “spoofed” to appear they come from legitimate sources.
- Scammers will often “convince victims to leave work or school immediately without an explanation, make large cash withdrawals, and pack suitcases and leave their residence immediately.”
Calgary police said they are working with local educational institutions to raise awareness about these virtual kidnappings.
The University of Calgary said in an emailed statement to Global News Friday that it is aware of the issue and has been working with police and the Chinese consulate.
“On May 11, we distributed a message from the Chinese consulate warning of the scam to our students who are Chinese nationals,” the statement said. “The university is committed to supporting the safety and security of all of our students.”
The university added that it has specialized staff in place to help answer questions students may have.
Some tips police said people can use to help themselves from becoming a victim of these scams include:
- Double checking communications from the government directly. This can be done by calling a phone number you know is legitimate. Don’t use the number or the contact information provided by the potential scammer. “If you are concerned, reach out to police or consulate officials,” the release said.
- Government agencies, including the police, “will not force you to stay on the phone or prohibit you from seeking legal advice or contacting your friends and family.”
- Don’t be pressured to respond to the potential scammer “until you have made sure the communication from your family member or the government is legitimate.”
- And a final piece of advice from police: “if you receive communications that your loved one has been kidnapped, contact your local police immediately. Do not transfer money.”