Virtual Kidnappings at Scale
July 28, 2020 12:20 PM   Subscribe

Australian authorities are warning that “virtual kidnappings” could be on the rise as anonymous criminals seek to exploit Chinese students in the country and their families back home (NYT). Students are convinced, via robocall, that they must check into a hotel and turn off their phone for their safety. Meanwhile, parents receive a digitally-manipulated ransom video of their child.
posted by adrianhon (26 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
 
From the rejected plots of a Ghost in the Shell: Standalone Complex episode.
posted by glonous keming at 12:33 PM on July 28 [16 favorites]


cstross to the courtesy phone…
posted by acb at 12:47 PM on July 28 [6 favorites]


"Skype declined a request for comment"
posted by clavdivs at 1:10 PM on July 28


I hope this effectively replaces actual kidnapping for ransom.
posted by BrotherCaine at 1:55 PM on July 28 [3 favorites]


Not after this meme of "Convinced by robo-call to check into a hotel and turn of their phone" circles the globe a few times.
posted by Rash at 2:51 PM on July 28 [3 favorites]


When I worked with a place that had a phone, every so often we'd get a phone call from a number speaking Mandarin and coming up on caller ID as the Chinese Consulate in San Francisco.

They were trying this same thing in the US for a while. "Send us a bunch of money or your visa is in doubt" is quite the stranglehold to have on people. They may still be doing it for all I know.
posted by fifteen schnitzengruben is my limit at 3:08 PM on July 28 [3 favorites]


They were trying this same thing in the US for a while. "Send us a bunch of money or your visa is in doubt" is quite the stranglehold to have on people. They may still be doing it for all I know.

I get a dozen of those calls every month. I'm pretty sure all you need is phone number with an area code that correlates with a large east-asian immigrant population and the robots will ring you up.
posted by mhoye at 3:53 PM on July 28 [4 favorites]


Not after this meme of "Convinced by robo-call to check into a hotel and turn of their phone" circles the globe a few times.

It might be more fertile ground to convince the antimaskers to so so to counteract the deep state’s 5G vaccine plans or something. They could probably monetize it quite well.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 4:00 PM on July 28 [3 favorites]


I get a dozen of those calls every month.

I envy you that you have so few. I have two or three on a typical day. Due to inertia my cell is for an area code I have not lived in for a decade now, but invariably the calls come from my former city of residence. They have never in my experience spoofed the number of the embassy or anything official-sounding: just random residential numbers with the same recorded message in Mandarin, a language I speak not at all.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 4:04 PM on July 28 [3 favorites]


This has been an issue in Canada for a while, per this 2019 article:
Virtual kidnapping warning renewed after another incident in Vancouver
posted by BlueSock at 4:46 PM on July 28 [3 favorites]


I was getting calls featuring the voice of a young woman speaking what I guessed was Chinese up to about a year ago. I bet they were "your visa is in doubt" calls in light of this thread. Thanks for solving that puzzle for me, fifteen schnitzengruben is my limit .
posted by jamjam at 5:04 PM on July 28


My mother-in-law in the US was duped by a similar sort of call pretending to be her grandson who supposedly had been picked up by the police some where ...
posted by mbo at 5:17 PM on July 28


The COVID situation, as well as the tension in relations between China and Australia, adds layers of complexity. Many Chinese students here are not receiving any social or financial support and are increasingly isolated socially while being forced to work crappy frontline jobs just to be able to have a roof over their heads and food on the table. With a (for us) massive surge in cases in Melbourne and worries of the same in Sydney, there have been localised lockdowns of housing commission flats and other government efforts to control the spread. It would not surprise me at all that people who would normally ignore these kinds of calls might think, hey this is something I should actually do as a foreign national in a country that doesn't want me here and where people from my country are being blamed for the spread of a deadly virus.
posted by Athanassiel at 5:21 PM on July 28 [11 favorites]


My Chinese spam calls (for my area code with a very large proportion of Chinese nationals/students) mostly fit into two categories. One features a sort of fog horn/boat horn sound, the other features a sort of muzak with harp-ish melodies.

Both usually feature what sounds to be a middle-aged woman speaking plaintively and emploringly for about 40 seconds.

Anyone get those or can hazard a guess if they're related?
posted by SaltySalticid at 5:33 PM on July 28


It would not surprise me at all that people who would normally ignore these kinds of calls might think, hey this is something I should actually do as a foreign national in a country that doesn't want me here and where people from my country are being blamed for the spread of a deadly virus.

Additionally, I think some people marvelling at the "gullibility" of many of the students, don't realise the context of coming from a country where many of them have tremendous wealth in comparison to the masses (and are naive in the sense that they have been heavily insulated from day to day realities from birth), there is zero rule of law and things happen to people arbitrarily and because of mix ups all the time, and people are, in fact, regularly disappeared either directly or with tacit endorsement from the state.
posted by smoke at 6:32 PM on July 28 [20 favorites]


Also, we are investigating your social security number for fraud. Call us right back or we'll cancel it!
posted by kaibutsu at 7:20 PM on July 28 [1 favorite]


Anyone get those or can hazard a guess if they're related?
posted by SaltySalticid

If noise is over the 40 seconds of voice, I'd venture the horn is authoritative but not like a siren which could induce panic. the gentle music is to make the listener more attentive and less distracted.
posted by clavdivs at 7:22 PM on July 28


Oh man I get the call about my social security number being “suspended” all the time. I know it’s a scam because the Social Security Administration doesn’t suspend numbers. So I give them my number every time just to fuck with them and ha!ha! joke’s on them because it never actually is suspended.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 7:36 PM on July 28 [2 favorites]


Oh man I get the call about my social security number being “suspended” all the time. I know it’s a scam because the Social Security Administration doesn’t suspend numbers.

You're making a joke, but allow me to refer you to this now-classic paper from Microsoft Research explaining Why Do Nigerian Scammers Say They are From Nigeria?

The short version - you should read the whole thing, but the short version - is that because any individual candidate victim has an associated time-cost, these processes are continuously refined and improved to select for the most gullible and vulnerable audiences possible in order to improve process yield.

The entire exercise, for all its apparent clumsy ineptitude, has a sinister efficiency to it that's hard to appreciate unless you really, really understand what you're looking at. Which is something all of us should take some time to think harder about than we have, to be blunt; as the saying goes, if you've been at the table for 30 minutes and don't know who the sucker is, you're the sucker. So, how many tables have sat down at this year? How many tables are you sitting at right now?

Are you sure?
posted by mhoye at 8:25 PM on July 28 [8 favorites]


Well I keep posting here, so at least one
posted by Merus at 10:39 PM on July 28 [13 favorites]


I live in an area with a lot of recent immigrants from South East Asia. I frequently get robocalls that appear to originate from my area code. If I answer, a female voice recites an insistent-sounding message in Chinese. I am told that the message is something to the effect that there is a parcel waiting for me, and I have to pay some fee to release it for delivery. I am starting to recognise "DHL" and "UPS" in the messages.
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 5:07 AM on July 29 [2 favorites]


Yes, I have also received the DHL call frequently.
posted by jb at 5:22 AM on July 29 [1 favorite]


I hope this effectively replaces actual kidnapping for ransom.

Obligatory link about robbing a bank with a telephone.
posted by JanetLand at 5:31 AM on July 29


Back in the early 2000's, I remember reading about the Central American version of this trick on a Lonely Planet forum. College-age USians traveling in Mexico meet a young Mexican man who speaks excellent English. He tells them he's doing research on people from the States for a class he's taking and interviews them. At the end, he asks for their phone number back home so he can call with follow-up questions. This was before easy cellphone and internet access, so the interviewer is confident that the American tourists probably wouldn't talk to their parents frequently. The kidnappers call the parents and tell them their child has been arrested but everything can be fixed by wiring a few thousand dollars to an account in Mexico. Eventually, the American kids get home to completely panicked parents. I remember at the time thinking it was kind of a brilliant scam because it plays off of everyone's prejudices perfectly.
posted by Drab_Parts at 6:30 AM on July 29 [1 favorite]


My mother-in-law in the US was duped by a similar sort of call pretending to be her grandson

This is a different scam, which has become well-known.

I think some people marvelling at the "gullibility" of many of the students don't realise

To me the story seems bogus given the "improbability" of children of the wealthy sitting alone in a hotel room with their cell phone turned off. How long would that last -- minutes, not days.
posted by Rash at 8:40 AM on July 29


Tangentially related, hospital systems have increasingly become targets of ransom ware attacks. The cost of a hospital system’s network going down is enormous — revenue grinds to a halt and patient lives are at risk. A 5 million dollar ransom is well worth paying to get things up and running again quickly. One of my employers suffered such an attack about a year ago and made the strategic decision not to pay. The result was a year of rebuilding systems and several months of operating at 1/4 capacity. The organizational cost was clearly higher than the ransom and created huge impacts on the lives of patients and providers. My understanding is that most organizations simply pay the ransom so they can move on.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 4:06 AM on August 2


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