Missing Chinese foreign exchange student discovered in tent after 'cyber kidnapping'

Dmitry Nogaev/iStock
Dmitry Nogaev/iStock

A 17-year-old Chinese foreign exchange student who went missing last week was found alive in a tent on a mountainside near Brigham City in Utah, with authorities saying that the teenager was the victim of a “cyber kidnapping.” 

At the time of his disappearance, Kai Zhuang had been staying with his host family in Riverdale. The host family reportedly didn't know the student had gone missing until his parents in China reported he was kidnapped on Dec. 28 after they received a ransom demand for his return.

ABC4 in Utah reported that Zhuang’s host family told police they heard the teenager moving around the house on Dec. 28, and didn't believe there was cause for alarm. Authorities initially thought someone took the exchange student from the house by force. However, they later learned that Zhuang left on his own. 

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Zhuang’s parents transferred $80,000 to bank accounts in China after they received threats from the kidnappers and a photo that appeared to show their son was in danger, according to ABC4. 

The Riverdale Police teamed up with the FBI and the U.S. and Chinese Embassies to investigate. The FBI informed investigators about what they call “cyber kidnappings,” which involve the targeting of foreign exchange students, many of whom are Chinese students.

The kidnappers demand ransom money from the victim’s family in addition to forcing the student to isolate, monitoring them via phone or FaceTime. The victim’s captors also persuade the victim to take pictures to make it look as if they are being held captive. 

“The victims comply out of fear that their families will be harmed if they don’t comply with the cyber kidnappers,” the Riverdale Police stated. “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.” 

Riverdale Police zeroed in on Zhuang’s location after analyzing phone records, surveillance footage and his purchases, according to ABC4, tracking the student to the Brigham City area. 

It is possible that the kidnappers were manipulating Zhuang back on Dec. 20, when Provo Police reported meeting the student as he attempted to go camping. Out of concern for the teenager’s safety, the Provo Police arranged to have the student returned to Riverdale.

“We believed the victim was isolating himself at the direction of the cyber kidnappers in a tent,” the Riverdale Police said. “Due to the cold weather in Utah at this time of year, we became additionally concerned for the victim’s safety in that he may freeze to death overnight.”

With the help of drones and the Utah DPS Aero Bureau, a Riverdale Police detective found the student in a tent with no heat source in Brigham City canyon, according to ABC4. Police described the teenager as “very cold and scared” and “relived to see police.”

Despite camping in the cold, the student did not appear to sustain any physical injuries or harm, such as hypothermia, due to the cold temperatures. According to the Mayo Clinic, hypothermia occurs when a person’s body loses heat faster than the body can create it and when one’s temperature drops below 95 F. In severe cases, hypothermia can lead to a person’s heart and respiratory system shutting down and, in the worst-case scenario, death. 

After the police discovered his location, Zhuang said he wanted to speak to his family and “requested a warm cheeseburger,” according to ABC4. The authorities are still searching for the cyber kidnappers.

Riverdale Police also issued a warning about cyber kidnapping, informing members of the public that if a cyber kidnapper were to attempt to make contact with them, then they should contact the authorities. The police also advised against sending money to the kidnappers and not continue communications with them. 

“I want foreign exchange students to know they can trust police to protect them and to work with police to ensure their safety as well as their family’s safety abroad,” Riverdale Police Chief Casey Warren. 

Samantha Kamman is a reporter for The Christian Post. She can be reached at: Follow her on Twitter: @Samantha_Kamman

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