Teen ‘cyber kidnapping’ victim found hiding near Utah canyon

Authorities have located a missing Chinese high school exchange student “alive but very cold and scared” on a Utah mountainside after the 17-year-old fell victim to “cyber kidnapping.” The student’s parents first reported their child missing on the evening of December 28 after he failed to return to his host family’s home in Riverdale, Utah. After a multiday investigation, local police working alongside the FBI, Chinese officials, and the US Chinese embassy located the teen at a wooded campsite roughly 25 miles north, near Brigham City, Utah, on December 31.

According to the National Institutes of Health’s Office of Management, cyber kidnapping is a criminal strategy allowing attackers to remotely target victims. Often focused on foreign exchange students, cyber kidnappers threaten to harm their intended victim’s loved ones unless they self-isolate at an undisclosed location. Targets supply photos and videos to their manipulators, who then relay the media to family members as if the victim has been physically abducted. 

In this instance, the victim’s family reportedly transferred approximately $80,000 to various Chinese bank accounts after receiving repeated threats to their teen’s safety. Although the exact frequency of cyber kidnappings remains unknown, security experts warn that technological advances such as AI vocal cloning and deepfakes could make them easier to perpetrate.

Credit: Riverdale City Utah

Investigators reportedly used the teen’s phone geodata and bank transaction records to locate his campsite’s approximate area within a canyon near Brigham City. The Weber County Sheriff’s Office deployed its Search and Rescue Drone team to the region, after which authorities came across the teen staying in a small tent with only a sleeping bag, heated blanket, and “limited” food and water.

“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 chief Casey Warren claimed in a statement posted to Facebook on December 31.

[Related: AI vocal clone tech used in kidnapping scam.]

Authorities are now actively investigating the cyber kidnapping’s orchestrators and warn the public to remain aware of the scamming strategy. If such an attempt is suspected, targets are advised to immediately contact law enforcement, discontinue all conversations with the assailants, and refrain from transferring any money to them.

The Utah exchange student’s interactions with his cyber kidnappers reportedly first date at least as far back as December 20, 2023, when he first purchased camping equipment and attempted to isolate near Provo. Local police were allegedly “concerned for his safety,” and returned him to his host family the same day. The 17-year-old made no reference to his ongoing harassment at the time.