An expert in technology discusses how the surge in artificial intelligence has empowered hackers to craft disturbing real-world situations aimed at online victims – and provides insights on preventing extortion attempts

An expert in technology discusses how the surge in artificial intelligence has empowered hackers to craft disturbing real-world situations aimed at online victims – and provides insights on preventing extortion attempts

The Rise of Virtual Kidnapping Scams

Online hackers are extorting victims out of thousands of dollars by creating sordid scenarios and luring in unsuspecting internet users.

In one recent case, Kai Zhuang, 17, was plucked from a Utah mountainside after anonymous scammers convinced him to isolate himself.

Once he was alone, kidnappers sent a ransom demand to his parents in China to be paid for his return.

The ruse is part of an ongoing series of scams that are exploiting individuals around the world.

By Emma Richter For Dailymail.Com Published: 09:34 EST, 7 January 2024 | Updated: 13:04 EST, 7 January 2024

Evolution of Virtual Kidnapping Scams in the US

Virtual kidnapping scams have crept into the US for more than two decades, but the bizarre scheme has recently evolved and exploited many individuals across the country.

In a recent case, foreign exchange student Kai Zhuang, 17, was reported missing on December 28 after his family in China received threatening messages that he had been kidnapped.

Despite his host family in Utah reporting he had been seen earlier that day, his family paid an $80,000 ransom fee to Chinese bank accounts.

He was later found in the Brigham City Canyon after falling victim to a sordid ‘cyber-kidnapping’ scam.

Targeting the Foreign Demographic

Dr. Chris Pierson, the founder and CEO of BlackCloak, a cybersecurity firm for high-profile individuals, commented on Zhuang’s case, calling it ‘an interesting escalation in terms of the current common scams.’

Pierson emphasized that artificial intelligence is making cases like these easier to facilitate.

Foreign exchange students, according to Pierson, are the ‘perfect demographic’ for cyber-kidnapping due to time differences and language barriers that make them more susceptible to being ‘preyed upon.’

Tactics and Goals of Cyber-Kidnappers

The criminals’ main goal is to collect as much money as possible by creating striking, falsified stories to scare their targets.

Pierson noted that cash profits under $10,000 are common, but electronic transactions and wire transfers have enabled criminals to get away with larger sums.

The act of kidnapping is discreetly orchestrated, with victims advised to limit paper trails, use different phones for communication, and avoid telling anyone about it.

Use of AI in Virtual Kidnapping Scams

Pierson revealed that criminals now use AI software to make their schemes more convincing and terrifying.

He cited the case of Jennifer DeStefano, whose family received a $1 million ransom demand with a fabricated audio recording that sounded like her daughter was in distress.

Voice prints gathered from social networking sites, like Twitter and Instagram, enable scammers to replicate individuals’ voices seamlessly.

Defending Against Cyber-Kidnapping

Despite the rise in cyber-kidnapping, Pierson suggested remaining vigilant as the key to avoiding scams.

Recognizing patterns in communication is crucial for defense, and he emphasized that cybercriminals are constantly adapting their methods based on demands and obstacles.

Pierson acknowledged that cyber-kidnapping is a challenging scam to propagate due to the difficulty in getting two parties to cooperate with demands.

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