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Opinion: Confronting cyber kidnappers and other invisible 21st-century criminals

The tale of a 17-year-old Chinese exchange student in Utah is tragically all-too familiar

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Law enforcement officials talk with Kai Zhuang, a 17-year-old Chinese exchange student, after he was found safe in a tent near Brigham City on Dec. 31, 2023.

Law enforcement officials talk with Kai Zhuang, a 17-year-old Chinese exchange student, after he was found safe in a tent near Brigham City on Sunday, Dec. 31, 2023.

Weber County Sheriff’s Office

A long-retired former editor sent me a friend request the other day on Facebook. I couldn’t remember if we already were “friends,” so I accepted.

It didn’t take long to figure out it was an imposter trying to steal my money.

This morning, I received two emails claiming to be from friends asking me to look at photos. Someone with an email address that begins “info6Yt81ih …” and continues for about a dozen more letters and numbers, wrote to tell me I need to update my payment method because my Netflix account “is on hold.” And someone else informed me that my account had been locked at, oddly, a credit union where I have no account.

You probably recognize these. For many adults, dealing with crude schemes and lures has become a part of everyday life involving social media, email or telephone.

Generally, they are coming for our money, not our lives. Not so with adolescents.

We ought to have a lot of sympathy for Kai Zhuang. Regardless of age, few of us have had to deal with what he endured. 

Kai is 17. He is Chinese and was a foreign exchange student living with a family in Utah. He apparently was the victim of a cyber kidnapping plot, in which perpetrators made him believe his family was in danger unless he sent them money. At the same time, they also apparently persuaded Kai to isolate himself in the mountains and send pictures, so that his family in China would believe he had been kidnapped and that they needed to send ransom money.

“Kai was under the impression if he called his parents and said anything to them, they would be harmed,” the Riverdale police chief told KSL.

Does this scheme seem unrealistic? 

Imagine yourself at age 17, in a strange land and a strange culture, thousands of miles from home. Imagine yourself as a parent of such a child. 

As often as adults face crude phishing scams, many of them unwittingly become victims. Teenagers face these and more with a disadvantage.

As Frances E. Jensen, chair of the neurology department at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, has written, “The most important part of the human brain — the place where actions are weighed, situations judged and decisions made — is right behind the forehead, in the frontal lobes. This is the last part of the brain to develop …”

Authorities say this scam is targeting a lot of foreign exchange students. 

It may not last long. Word spreads and exchange students may soon be warned about this as they prepare to leave. But what will come next? What are the depths of the criminal mind?

And how can we stop depraved criminals who attack like ghosts from faraway lands, then disappear just as quickly? What sure-fire defense exists for the demons of the 21st century?

Law enforcement officials told me recently about how criminals can use artificial intelligence to imitate a person’s voice and make phone calls to parents or spouses, convincing them a loved one has been kidnapped. This happened recently to a woman in Arizona

News sites are filled with stories about “sextortions,” schemes in which young people are goaded into taking nude photos of themselves by texters posing as members of the opposite sex, after which the perpetrator demands money in exchange for not sending the photos to the young person’s friends and family.

It has happened in Utah, and with tragic consequences. A few years ago, a family opened up to the Deseret News about their son, who died by suicide as a result of such a scam.

Police believed his perpetrators, who ultimately encouraged him to kill himself, were operating in the Ivory Coast.

Kai’s story had a happy ending. Police found him. He is back home in China. Not all are as fortunate. 

These problems aren’t new, of course. They are as old as fairy tales that tell of children being chased by wolves, eaten by mean old witches or pursued by giants who hide in the leafy heights of a bean stalk. 

But the internet lets friendly chatters turn instantly into ravenous wolves who change shapes, destroy lives and disappear into the ether. 

The only defense seems to be information. Police said the Deseret News’ story about sextortion likely saved lives. It has been read and shared hundreds of thousands of times. Kids should be taught to avoid scams. More importantly, they need to understand that mistakes don’t make their lives hopeless.

That seems so inadequate against such a vicious group of criminals. But, as we adults learn every time we turn on a computer, this is life in the 21st century.