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Missing exchange student found cold and scared after what police call a ‘cyber-kidnapping’

by Johnson Jr.
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Originally Published: 01 JAN 24 19:09 ET

Updated: 02 JAN 24 07:39 ET

By Jay Croft and Sarah Engel, CNN

(CNN) — Utah police say they found a teenage Chinese exchange student alone and cold in a tent after he was a victim of what they’re calling a “cyber-kidnapping.”

The Riverdale Police Department said Kai Zhuang, 17, was reported missing Thursday by his high school. His parents in China had contacted the school after they received a ransom photo of their son – and had sent $80,000 to bank accounts in China “due to continuous threats from the kidnappers,” according to a press release issued Sunday.

Police found him Sunday “alive but very cold and scared” at a makeshift campsite in the mountains near Brigham City, using Zhuang’s bank and phone records, the release said. Police said he was there on directions from his cyber-kidnappers to isolate himself.

Zhuang was relieved to see police, according to the release, and “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.”

The Brigham City Fire Department checked Zhuang for cold-related issues. He was cleared of major medical concerns and given a cheeseburger, which he requested.

Zhuang also asked to speak with his family to make sure they were safe, which police helped him do, according to the release.

More than a week before he was reported missing, police officers in Provo had picked up Zhuang on December 20 while he was reportedly trying to camp, according to the release. They were concerned for his safety, arranged for him to be taken back to Riverdale and contacted his host family.

Riverdale Police said Sunday that Zhuang was already being “manipulated and controlled by the cyber kidnappers” then but had not told anyone.

On Thursday, police went to his host home, and his host family said they were unaware Zhuang was missing, the release said. They told police he was at home the night before and that they heard him early that morning. Police said there was no evidence that he had been forcefully taken from the home.

Riverdale police worked with the FBI, the US embassy in China and Chinese officials to find Zhuang.

Police said the FBI told them other foreign exchange students, particularly Chinese, have been targeted in similar “cyber-kidnapping” scams in the US. Perpetrators threaten students, order them to isolate, monitor them through video calls and demand ransom from their families.

The FBI referred questions back to Riverdale police.

CNN’s Kaylene Chassie contributed to this report.

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Utah police

Police in Utah have found this 17-year-old foreign exchange student, who was reported missing.

Riverdale Police

01 Jan 24

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