Police: Exchange student believed family was in danger; how to keep your family safe

Jan 2, 2024, 6:23 PM | Updated: Jan 3, 2024, 7:54 am

SALT LAKE CITY — Kai Zhuang truly believed his family was in danger.

The 17-year-old foreign exchange student was contacted about a month ago by people telling him his family in China was in danger and he needed to send money to keep them safe. So, he did exactly as he was told.

“Kai was under the impression that if he called his parents and said anything to them, that they would be harmed in China,” Riverdale Police Department Chief Casey Warren said.

The cyber kidnappers convinced Zhuang to send them photos of himself seemingly in distress. They then used those photos to send to Zhuang’s family asking them for money as well.

“The family in China believes that the kidnappers are actually with their son, and through these three-way phone calls, with the photographs, and so it’s kind of a double-blind if you will,” Warren said.

The cyber kidnappers even got Zhuang to leave his host family last week and stay in a tent. Before that, a Provo police officer noticed something suspicious when Zhuang was found walking the streets of Provo with camping gear he had just bought.

Utah police explain how exchange student went missing and was found, reunited with his family

When he was reported missing last week and his picture was in the news, that officer contacted Riverdale police and told them about his encounter.

That led Riverdale police to believe he might be camping somewhere alone in the mountains.

“The captors want him to isolate himself from all society because they know there’s a high probability police and law enforcement will be contacted,” Warren said.

Using cell phone ping information, Zhuang was tracked to an area near Brigham City in Box Elder Canyon.

Riverdale Sgt. Derek Engstrom noticed a trail and decided to hike up where he saw a tent up the trail. That’s where Zhuang was with a sleeping bag and very little food and water.

“Kai was relieved to see Sgt. Engstrom,” Warren said. “One of the first things he wanted to do was contact his family in China to make sure they were OK.”

His family came to Riverdale while he was missing. They are now on their way back to China. The investigation to find the cyber kidnappers is now up to Chinese authorities.

“I am glad they’re not here in the U.S. but I wish they were so we could hold them responsible,” Warren said. “Hopefully the Chinese officials there will help locate these suspects, identify them, and bring them to justice there.”

In all, between Zhuang and his family, they sent nearly $80,000 to the cyber kidnappers. This is an extreme case, but Warren said law enforcement sees similar extortion cases all the time.

“Cyber extortion is on the rise. We have these types of cases frequently in Utah, where, as an example, someone will engage with someone on the internet in a romantic relationship of some sort,” Warren said.

“During that relationship over the course of a month or so, they will send some explicit photos back and forth. Then once they have those, and during that time they’ve talked about friend and family and where they’re from, all those personal things you think you’re sharing with someone who cares about you, and then once they get those photographs, they will use those and say, hey, we’re not really who we said we were.”

That can lead to an endless spiral of extortion that is difficult for the victim to get out of because of the threat of releasing those photos to friends, family, or even the victim’s place of work.

“Your best thing to do is, first of all, cease contact, don’t send money, and contact your local law enforcement officials. That way you can have some assurance that you are going to be safe.”

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Police: Exchange student believed family was in danger; how to keep your family safe