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A true tale of virtual kidnapping: Lock and Code S05E02

This week on the Lock and Code podcast…

On Thursday, December 28, at 8:30 pm in the Utah town of Riverdale, the city police began investigating what they believed was a kidnapping.

17-year-old foreign exchange student Kai Zhuang was missing, and according to Riverdale Police Chief Casey Warren, Zhuang was believed to be “forcefully taken” from his home, and “being held against his will.”

The evidence leaned in police’s favor. That night, Zhuang’s parents in China reportedly received a photo of Zhuang in distress. They’d also received a ransom demand.

But as police in Riverdale and across the state of Utah would soon learn, the alleged kidnapping had a few wrinkles.

For starters, there was no sign that Zhuang had been forcefully removed from his home in Riverdale, where he’d been living with his host family. In fact, Zhuang’s disappearance was so quiet that his host family was entirely unaware that he’d been missing until police came and questioned them. Additionally, investigators learned that Zhuang had experienced a recent run-in with police officers nearly 75 miles away in the city of Provo. Just eight days before his disappearance in Riverdale, Zhuang caught the attention of Provo residents because of what they deemed strange behavior for a teenager: Buying camping gear in the middle of a freezing winter season. Police officers who intervened at the residents’ requests asked Zhuang if he was okay, he assured them he was, and a ride was arranged for the teenager back home.

But what Zhuang didn’t tell Provo police at the time was that, already, he was being targeted in an extortion scam. But when Zhuang started to push back against his scammers, it was his parents who became the next target.

Zhuang—and his family—had become victims of what is known as “virtual kidnapping.”

For years, virtual kidnapping scams happened most frequently in Mexico and the Southwestern United States, in cities like Los Angeles and Houston. But in 2015, the scams began reaching farther into the US.

The scams themselves are simple yet cruel attempts at extortion. Virtual kidnappers will call phone numbers belonging to affluent neighborhoods in the US and make bogus threats about a holding a family member hostage.

As explained by the FBI in 2017, virtual kidnappers do not often know the person they are calling, their name, their occupation, or even the name of the family member they have pretended to abduct:

“When an unsuspecting person answered the phone, they would hear a female screaming, ‘Help me!’ The screamer’s voice was likely a recording. Instinctively, the victim might blurt out his or her child’s name: ‘Mary, are you okay?’ And then a man’s voice would say something like, ‘We have Mary. She’s in a truck. We are holding her hostage. You need to pay a ransom and you need to do it now or we are going to cut off her fingers.’”

Today, on the Lock and Code podcast with host David Ruiz, we are presenting a short, true story from December about virtual kidnapping. Today’s episode cites reporting and public statements from the Associated Press, the FBI,, Fox 6 Milwaukee, and the Riverdale Police Department.

Tune in today to listen to the full story.

Show notes and credits:

Intro Music: “Spellbound” by Kevin MacLeod (
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 4.0 License
Outro Music: “Good God” by Wowa (

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