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Missing foreign exchange student found safe inside tent in Utah in ‘cyber kidnapping’: Police

Riverdale Police Department

(NEW YORK) — A missing foreign exchange student from China was found safe inside a tent on a Utah mountainside following a dayslong search in what police called a case of “cyber kidnapping.”


Kai Zhuang, 17, was reported missing Thursday night by his high school, according to the Riverdale Police Department. The teen’s parents told school officials that they received a photograph of Zhuang from his alleged kidnappers indicating he had been abducted, police said.

His family told police they had transferred ransom money to bank accounts in China “due to continuous threats from the kidnappers,” the Riverdale Police Department said. They also provided the photograph, which appeared to show Zhuang being held captive and in danger, police said.

The teen’s host family was not aware he was missing and there were no signs that he was forcefully taken from his Riverdale home, police said. The family heard him at the home early Thursday, police said.

Riverdale police said they worked with the FBI, U.S. Embassy in China and Chinese officials to try to locate him in what they suspected to be a cyber kidnapping. Perpetrators of this crime tend to target foreign exchange students and tell their victims to isolate themselves and make themselves appear to be held captive in an attempt to extort the victims’ family for ransom, police said. Victims comply out of fear that their family will be harmed, police said.

Investigators learned Zhuang had purchased camping equipment and attempted to go camping in Provo, about 75 miles south of Riverdale, on Dec. 20, but local police were concerned for his safety and arranged transportation to return him to his host family, Riverdale police said.

The victim did not disclose to police or his host parents at the time that cyber kidnappers were controlling him, Riverdale police said.

Investigators believed Zhuang was now isolating himself at the direction of the cyber kidnappers in a tent in the Brigham City canyon area, about 27 miles north of Riverdale, amid dangerously cold temperatures, police said.

The Weber County Sheriff’s Office Search and Rescue Drone team and Brigham City police assisted in searching a large area along the Wasatch front in Brigham City for the teen. A Riverdale police detective who hiked the mountainside on foot came across the teen “alive but very cold and scared” inside the tent in a wooded area on Sunday, police said.

“The victim was relieved to see police,” Riverdale police said. “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.”

First responders cleared the teen of any major medical concerns at the scene.

“The victim only wanted to speak to his family to ensure they were safe and requested a warm cheeseburger, both of which were accomplished on the way back to Riverdale PD,” police said.

The investigation is ongoing.

Riverdale police urged anyone who has become the target of cyber kidnapping to discontinue contact with the suspects and not send them money, and to contact their local police department immediately.

“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 Chief Casey Warren said in a statement.

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