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Chinese students in Australia targeted in virtual kidnapping scam

Police-supplied image of a woman bound and gagged in a staged kidnap
Image captionPictures of the staged kidnappings were provided to police

Chinese students in Sydney are being targeted in a kidnapping scam forcing them to pay massive ransoms to fraudsters, Australian police say.

In many cases, blackmailed students were forced to stage their own kidnapping and send video proof to relatives in China to obtain funds.

Eight “virtual kidnappings” have been reported this year, including one where a A$2m (£1.1m;$1.43m) ransom was paid.

Victims had believed they or their loved ones were in danger, police said.

New South Wales (NSW) Police said the scheme had “really increased in frequency throughout 2020” and was operating on an “industrial scale”.

They have urged students to immediately report any threatening calls they receive.

How does the scam work?

Authorities said the “call centre-type” scam was being operated offshore, which made it difficult to track.

It typically involves a fraudster pretending to be from the Chinese embassy or another authority, ringing victims and informing them that they have been implicated in a crime in China or are facing some other threat.

The scammers, who usually speak Mandarin, then demand the student pay ongoing fees in order to avoid arrest or deportation.

In some cases, the students are also convinced to cease contact with their family and friends, rent a hotel room and fake a hostage situation to obtain funds from their relatives overseas.

In one case, a father had already paid more than A$2m (£1.1m; $1.43m) in ransom payments, before receiving a video of his daughter gagged and bound in an unknown location.

Police-supplied image of a woman wearing a ripped shirt bound in a staged kidnap
Image captionPolice in Sydney have received reports about eight such cases this year

He then contacted police in Sydney who, after an hour’s search, found the woman safe and well at a hotel room in the city.

In other cases reported to police this year, payments ranged from A$20,000 to A$300,000.

“On some occasions, [families] have basically paid every cent they’ve got,” said Detective Chief Superintendent Darren Bennett.

In many of the cases, when police were contacted they typically found the victim safe the next day. Often the victims felt too embarrassed or ashamed to report the crime.

“The victims of virtual kidnappings we have engaged are traumatised by what has occurred, believing they have placed themselves, and their loved ones, in real danger,” said NSW Police.

Why are people falling for it?

Police said the scam was operating on a mass scale, and appeared to involve a blitz of automated phone calls sent to anyone with a Chinese surname in the phone book.

“They cast their net very widely and they’re getting a few people who fall for it, which is very lucrative for them,” said Mr Bennett.

He noted that there had been a sharp increase in the past few months, where “pretty much every weekend we’ve had a victim fall for one of these scams.”

Advocates for international students in Australia say they have been more vulnerable amid the pandemic due to their reliance on casual work, and their exclusion from government welfare.

Police said “cultural factors”, as well as the isolation of some international students, made them a vulnerable target.

Victims could then be manipulated into extremes such as faking a kidnap because they had fallen under the scammer’s “psychological control”, Mr Bennett said.

“Students can do two important things to protect themselves against these types of crimes – firstly, be aware they exist and secondly, ask for help early if they think it might be happening to them or someone they know,” said NSW Police.

There have also been reports of such frauds occurring in New Zealand and the United States.

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Chengdu: US leaves consulate amid row with China

American diplomatic staff have left their consulate in the Chinese city of Chengdu, after a 72-hour deadline expired.

China ordered the closure in response to the US closing the Chinese consulate in Houston, Texas last week.

Before Monday’s deadline, staff were seen leaving the building, a plaque was removed, and a US flag was lowered.

China’s foreign ministry said Chinese staff entered the building after the deadline and “took over”.

A US state department spokesperson said: “The consulate has stood at the centre of our relations with the people in Western China, including Tibet, for 35 years.

“We are disappointed by the Chinese Communist Party’s decision and will strive to continue our outreach to the people in this important region through our other posts in China.”

As the US consulate closed, local residents gathered outside, with many waving Chinese flags and taking selfies.

Last Wednesday the US ordered the Chinese consulate in Houston to close, alleging that it had become a hub for spying and property theft.

Tensions have been escalating between the two countries over a number of issues:

A man attempts to remove the diplomatic plaque form a wall of the US consulate in Chengdu, China. Photo: 26 July 2020
Image captionWorkers began to remove the diplomatic plaque from the US consulate on Sunday

What happened in Chengdu?

Chinese state media showed pictures of lorries leaving the consulate and workers removing diplomatic insignia from the building.

On Monday morning, state broadcaster CCTV posted a video of the US flag being taken down.

Dozens of Chinese police were deployed outside the building, urging onlookers to move on.

However, boos were heard when a bus with tinted windows left the building on Sunday, AFP news agency reports.

When Chinese diplomats left their mission in Houston last week they were jeered by protesters.

Why did China choose to close the US consulate in Chengdu?

Last week the foreign ministry said the closure was a “legitimate and necessary response” to the actions taken by the US.

Staff at the consulate were “engaged in activities outside of their capacity, interfered in China’s internal affairs, and endangered China’s security and interests”, the statement said.

The Chengdu consulate, established in 1985, represented US interests over a vast area of south-western China.

The consulate was seen as strategically important, because it allowed the US to gather information on Tibet, where there has been long-running pressure for independence. Rights groups have long accused China of religious repression and human rights abuses in Tibet, which Beijing denies.

With its industry and growing services sector, Chengdu also is seen by the US as providing opportunities for exports of agricultural products, cars and machinery.

Police in Chengdu
Image captionPolice were guarding the premise from onlookers

The majority of the diplomatic mission’s more than 200 employees were hired locally.

The closure leaves the US with four consulates in mainland China and an embassy in the capital Beijing. It also has a consulate in Hong Kong.

What happened in Houston last week?

China lost its Houston mission last week, but still has four other consulates in the US and an embassy in Washington DC.

After a 72-hour deadline for Chinese diplomats to leave the Houston consulate expired on Friday, reporters saw men who appeared to be US officials force open a door to enter the premises.

Media captionMen using a hose and closing rubbish bins at China’s consulate in Houston

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Washington had acted because Beijing was “stealing” intellectual property.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin responded that the US move was based on “a hodgepodge of anti-Chinese lies”.

Why is there tension between China and the US?

There are a number of things at play. US officials have blamed China for the global spread of Covid-19. More specifically, President Trump has alleged, without evidence, that the virus originated from a Chinese laboratory in Wuhan.

And, in unsubstantiated remarks, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman said in March that the US military might have brought the virus to Wuhan.

The US and China have also been locked in a tariff war since 2018.

Mr Trump has long accused China of unfair trading practices and intellectual property theft, but in Beijing there is a perception that the US is trying to curb its rise as a global economic power.

The US has also imposed sanctions on Chinese politicians who it says are responsible for human rights violations against Muslim minorities in Xinjiang. China is accused of mass detentions, religious persecution and forced sterilisation of Uighurs and others.

Beijing denies the allegations and has accused the US of “gross interference” in its domestic affairs.