FBI issues ‘cyber kidnapping’ warning after a Utah student was found in the mountains

The FBI is warning of an extreme scam hitting the U.S. where criminals coerce a victim to stage their own kidnapping and film it, providing blackmail material against their own families.

The warning follows numerous similar messages issued by Chinese and Australian officials throughout 2023 and comes after the first well-documented “cyber kidnapping” case of this severity in the U.S.

Riverdale City, Utah, police said Sunday they had located 17-year-old Kai Zhuang, a Chinese exchange student, freezing in a tent on a mountain. Police said that scammers convinced him to isolate himself and swindled his family out of $80,000.

“We believed the victim was isolating himself at the direction of the cyber kidnappers in a tent. Due to the cold weather in Utah at this time of year, we became additionally concerned for the victim’s safety in that he may freeze to death overnight,” the Riverdale Police Department said in a statement.

A spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy in the U.S. said that it had dispatched personnel to the scene but that Zhuang was in good health.