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Artificial intelligence will likely impact cyber kidnappings. Here’s what you need to know

A foreign exchange student living in Riverdale is believed to be a victim of cyber kidnapping

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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 Department

Weber County Sheriff’s Department

In the snowy canyons of the mountains near Brigham City, Riverdale police found a missing foreign exchange student camping in a tent with no heat source.

The teenager disappeared from his host family’s home and went to the mountains. “We believed the victim was isolating himself at the direction of the cyber kidnappers in a tent,” Riverdale police said. His parents, who live in China, told police, “they had transferred approximately $80,000 U.S. dollars to bank accounts in China due to continuous threats from the kidnappers.”

Riverdale police said the teen was being “manipulated and controlled by kidnappers,” saying they believe him to be the victim of a crime known as cyber kidnapping.

Cyber kidnapping, also known as virtual kidnapping, is typically a ploy people use to extort money out of victims. Here’s a closer look at what these kinds of crimes are, how artificial intelligence will impact them and safety tips.

What is cyber kidnapping and how does it occur?

Cyber kidnapping is “always an extortion scheme,” according to the FBI. It’s different than abduction where a person is taken by force against their will. A virtual kidnapping involves coercion, where a victim is tricked into paying a ransom for a family member they believe is threatened.

“At its core, cyber kidnapping is sophisticated social engineering,” Utah Valley University national security studies expert Brandon Amacher said. “It’s a deception.”

In terms of how prevalent cyber kidnapping is, Amacher said, “it sounds like it would be fairly rare, but it’s actually more common than people would think.”

The specifics of a cyber kidnapping differ among individual cases, Amacher explained. Often what happens is the cyber kidnappers will reach out to a person and deceive them by having a voice in the background recreating the sound of a family member. Then, the cyber kidnappers will request money from the person threatening their family member with harm — even though their family member is not in the presence of person.

What appears to have occurred with the Riverdale case was “essentially social engineering on both ends, deception on both ends,” Amacher said.

Speaking generally, Amacher explained, those who perpetrate this crime will gather as much information as they can online about a potential victim and that person’s family. Knowing all of this information, they will “create a ploy” with a time element to it. If you don’t do something — like send them money in a certain time frame — they will claim some harm will come to the person you love, he said.

Chris Bertram is a retired deputy chief of police and current private investigator. He said if he were to explain to his teenagers what a cyber kidnapping was, he would give example scenarios of what to look for and explain what sorts of guidelines the perpetrators will put in place.

“My father, who’s a retired FBI agent, got a call years ago and it was one of his grandkids that he didn’t talk to a lot. But they said ‘Hey grandpa, it’s Nick. I’m in some trouble and I need some money,’” Bertram said. His father immediately asked his wife to call his brother and find out where the location of the grandson. They discovered that the person on the phone wasn’t Nick and that it was a scam.

“The unfortunate thing is that situation works a lot of the time,” Bertram said, adding that it’s important for people to use due diligence and to take some time to figure out what’s happening.

In a statement, Riverdale police explained what they learned from the FBI about virtual kidnappers.

“The cyber kidnappers convince the victim under duress to take photos of themselves that make it appear they are being held captive and send the photos to their parents,” the statement said. “The victims comply out of fear that their families will be harmed if they don’t comply with the cyber kidnappers. The cyber kidnappers 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.”

How will AI impact cyber kidnappings

As artificial intelligence becomes more advanced, cyber kidnappings are an area where it could potentially have a damaging effect.

“Those ruses that have tricked elderly people and parents into sending money, I think, is going to play right into it,” Bertram said. He explained that since artificial intelligence has the ability to make pictures and videos look real and sound real, it’s going to be easy to automatically process those as real — even when they may not be.

“Do some due diligence,” he said.

Bertram advised that if you receive a photograph or video, call a trusted person like a family member or law enforcement officer.

Amacher agreed that as artificial intelligence becomes more advanced, the content it generates will become more difficult to detect. “We might get to a point where these deep fakes are so good that they’re undetectable to the naked eye.

“I think it’s going to ... potentially lower the barrier of entry for malicious actors in terms of being really effective” with virtual kidnappings, he said. “As AI gets better and better at imitating people, there’s going to have to be some kind of a shift in terms of how do we verify that someone is who they say they are or that content being generated is actually that person.”

When asked if current legislation is set up in a way that adequately addresses all aspects of a cyber kidnapping with artificial intelligence in the mix, Amacher said, “it’s a difficult question to answer because in certain ways, there is a legal framework. There are penalties for extortion, penalties for fraud, but is it technically illegal to create that type of content? Yes, in some ways, and in other ways, no.”

This becomes more complicated if the person perpetrating the crime is not in the U.S. and the victim is in the U.S., he said.

How to protect yourself against cyber kidnappings

There are basic online safety tips — like not talking to people on the internet who you do not know and exercising caution around unsolicited messages — that can be the first steps in protecting yourself from cyber kidnapping. Experts say there are other ways to try to remain safe.

The FBI recommends that people do not post their travel plans online and that they make a verbal “password” family members can ask each other for in the case of emergencies.

Bertram recommended that people make a plan ahead of time about how they would address a potential cyber kidnapping situation.

Giving the example of a fire in the house, Bertram said that before the fire even occurs, people should have a plan how to exit a building and where to meet. The same is true about virtual kidnappings. “I think people need to look at the possibility of something like this potentially happening to them in one form or another,” he said

Part of the plan should include a trusted person to talk to. A virtual kidnapping can induce stress and anxiety, making it difficult to parse through what’s actually happening. “We need to reach out to that trusted person to give us perspective and to now allow us in a time of chaos and mental disruption to make bad decisions potentially,” he said.

Bertram explained that having fresh pair of eyes can be helpful because when a person receives a call saying that their loved one is missing, as it can be hard to think clearly and to function under duress. Taking the time to talk through what’s going on can help you take the best course of action.

“Whether it’s a trusted family member, an attorney, a police officer, a family member, a friend, trying to have somebody that can put at least a little context ... to that immediate crisis situation,” can help you to see what’s really going on, Bertram said.

If you think that someone may have initiated the beginning of an extortion scheme or a virtual kidnapping, Amacher advised to call the family member or loved one whom you are told is being held or under threat of harm. In an instance where you’re receiving a phone call from an unknown number and the caller is claiming to have your loved one, he said to reach out using multiple lines of communication to your loved one to verify.

Asking your loved one questions only they would know the answer to can also be helpful in the verification process. For example, you can ask them what their favorite ice cream flavor is or where their favorite park is.

On top of making contact with the person who the cyber kidnappers claim they are holding, Amacher also recommended that people familiarize themselves with law enforcement. Whether you’re traveling or at home, he said knowing where the nearest police station is and the location of the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate is important.

In the case that is a traditional kidnapping, not a cyber kidnapping, calling law enforcement is the best step. “If it is, in fact, a kidnapping, there’s resources that we need to out to such as law enforcement,” Bertram said, adding that the FBI may get involved.

Amacher said if you suspect you might be the victim of a cyber kidnapping, talk to the police.

“Reach out to law enforcement. More often than not, they will know how to handle the situation.”