(CNN)Chinese students in Australia are being coerced by criminal gangs to fake their own kidnappings as part of an elaborate global extortion racket targeting vulnerable overseas communities, authorities said Monday.
Chinese students in Australia are being scammed into faking their own kidnapping
Eight students in the state of New South Wales (NSW) were targeted in "virtual kidnapping" scams this year, with overseas relatives paying a total of 3.2 million Australian dollars ($2.3 million) in ransom, police said in a statement.
In one case, the father of a 22-year-old Chinese student in Sydney handed over a more than $1.4 million after being sent a video of his daughter bound in an unknown location.
Another family in China paid more than $14,000 after receiving a video of their 22-year-old relative bound and blindfolded via the messaging app WeChat. She was found by NSW police safe in a hotel room.
The student victims are left "traumatized by what has occurred, believing they have placed themselves, and their loved ones, in real danger," said NSW Assistant Commissioner Peter Thurtell in a statement.
The NSW police said that scammers were targeting vulnerable members of the Chinese-Australian community, such as international students living away from friends and family in an unfamiliar environment.
There are about 165,000 Chinese students in Australia this year, though the number may be lower due to the coronavirus pandemic; the figure usually hovers between 200,000 and 210,000, according to government figures
CNN has reached out to the Australian Federal Police for further comment.
Here's how the scam works: First, the scammers make calls to random numbers, often speaking in Mandarin. This acts as a kind of filter -- Australians who don't understand Chinese typically hang up, while international Chinese students respond in Mandarin.
Then, the scammers claim to be a Chinese authority, such as a member of the Chinese embassy or police. The scammer convinces the victim they have been implicated in a crime in China, and warn the victim they face extradition to China to face criminal charges in court -- or even threaten their families with criminal sanctions if they don't cooperate.
Scammers often use technology to mask their physical location and to program the host number, so it appears like the call is coming from actual Chinese authorities. If victims look up the caller's phone number online, it will match the number of Chinese police or the embassy, said Dr. Lennon Chang, a Senior Lecturer in Criminology at Australia's Monash University.
The scam can then go two ways, according to the NSW police statement. In one scenario, victims are threatened or coerced into transferring money into offshore bank accounts.
In the other scenario, victims are convinced to fake their own kidnappings, and their family is pressed for money. In this case, the scammers order victims to cease contact with their families and friends and rent a hotel room for their own protection and safety. Victims are told to photograph themselves tied up and blindfolded -- which are then sent to the victim's family overseas.
When the family is unable to contact their child in Australia, they then send the ransom payment in exchange for their child's release. The scammer continues making threats and ransom demands until they can't obtain any further payments -- at wh