Rescuers rescued an adolescent Chinese exchange student from a tent outside of Salt Lake City after she was rescued from what officials believe was an international cyber abduction scam.
Cybercriminals allegedly convinced 17-year-old Kai Zhuang that his family in China was under attack, so he fled from his host house on December 28. Zhuang emailed his family a photo indicating he was being kept against his will; in response, they reportedly paid a ransom of $80,000.
Using drone and helicopter footage, investigators were able to evacuate Zhuang and remove his tent after discovering him alone in a snowy canyon northeast of the city. He was described as "very cold and scared" in the announcement made on Sunday. During his absence, the weather dropped below freezing.
After Zhuang's abduction made headlines across the world, investigators have now revealed that they believe someone deceived him into fleeing in order to demand ransom from his family.
"The victim 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 for the cyberkidnapping," Riverdale Police said Dec. 31. "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 Police Department."
In another Utah city, police spotted Zhuang with camping gear on Dec. 20, worried about the cold, and escorted him back to his host family. Police stated he didn't inform them the cyberkidnappers controlled him.
On December 28, when his family in China called his Utah school, authorities found his camping gear stolen from his host home and tracked his mobile phone to Brigham Canyon. While an investigator walked the canyon, helicopters and drones searched extensively.
"Riverdale Police Det. Sgt. (Derek) Engstrom hiked on foot up the mountainside, and came across the victim's tent in a wooded area," authorities stated. The victim was alive, cold, and afraid when Sergeant Engstrom found him in the tent. Seeing cops relieved the sufferer."
Zhuang's story is part of a growing fraud in which hackers approach exchange students, mainly Chinese exchange students, individually, convince them their family is in danger, and compel them to produce images attesting to their kidnapping. Police said ransom-seekers use the photos to trick the family.
"The cyberkidnappers 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," police stated.
Mexican jail convicts helped pioneer this more sophisticated kind of virtual abduction by tricking affluent Americans into paying ransoms.