Riverdale police say missing foreign exchange student found safe was victim of ‘cyber kidnapping’

Dec 31, 2023, 9:38 PM | Updated: Jan 2, 2024, 6:20 pm

RIVERDALE — Riverdale police said Sunday night that a missing 17-year-old foreign exchange student has been found safe and that he was the victim of “cyber kidnapping.”

Kai Zhuang was reported missing Thursday. Police asked for the public’s help to find him Friday and said he was considered endangered because Kai’s family in China had received a ransom note and a photo of their child that would indicate he may have been kidnapped.

When police responded to the residence of the host family Kai was staying with, they were unaware that he was missing, reporting that he had been home the night prior and they had heard him early that morning.

Riverdale Police Chief Casey Warren said Sunday that Kai was “manipulated and controlled” by “cyber kidnappers” who made him believe that his family in China was threatened, and that the family had paid $80,000 “due to continuous threats from the kidnappers” after seeing a photograph that made it appear that “he was being held captive and was in danger.”

The Riverdale Police Department worked with the FBI and U.S. Embassy in China, along with Chinese officials. Through these interactions, the police learned more about cyber kidnapping and how it could apply to this case, Warren said.

The FBI briefed Riverdale police on multiple recent cases where cyber kidnappers targeted Chinese foreign exchange students. The perpetrators threaten the young foreign exchange students and their families while demanding ransom, telling the students to isolate themselves and while under duress, to take pictures of themselves that make it look like they are being held captive and send them to their families, Warren said.

Through obtaining bank records, purchases over the last month, phone ping records and after discovering a recent encounter with police in Provo who were concerned for Kai’s safety after he attempted to set up a campsite, Riverdale police believed Kai was self-isolating in a Brigham City canyon area.

Kai was found Sunday by a Riverdale detective in the mountains near Brigham City “alive but very cold and scared. The victim was relieved to see police. The victim had no heat source inside the tent, only a heat blanket, a sleeping bag, limited food and water and several phones that were presumed to be used to carry out the cyber kidnapping,” Warren said in a statement.

KSL TV spoke to Chris Bertrum who is a law enforcement expert about the case. Bertrum is a Former deputy police chief and is currently a private investigator.

“They isolate the victim they isolate the target family and they put them in a position where they both are believing that  something is going on that causes them to pay out money. Based on the fact that both groups are very fearful of what is going on” Bertrum said.

“This took some planning this probably took some time… you’ve got someone organized enough to know where he is in Utah to know where the family is [in China] and to know how to communicate with the son and to communicate with the family.”

Kai was able to speak to his family and ensure they were safe and was also given a warm cheeseburger on his way back to the Riverdale Police Department.

“I think it’s important for families prepare themselves for something like this,” Bertrum said.

NOTE: KSL TV has removed images of the crime victim in this story and the video.

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Riverdale police say missing foreign exchange student found safe was victim of ‘cyber kidnapping’