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Alarming surge in cyber kidnapping raises global concerns

New Delhi, Jan 28 : In an era where technological advancements shape our daily lives, the proliferation of scams and cons has become an unsettling reality. Cybercriminals, armed with sophisticated tools, have evolved into a significant challenge for Law Enforcement Agencies (LEAs) across the globe.

Various forms of cybercrime, including sextortion, credit card fraud, illegal digital loan calls, income tax refund services frauds, real estate fraud, investment scams, Ponzi schemes online, impersonation, pig butcher frauds, and job scams, have become pervasive threats.

A recent and particularly disturbing trend — cyber kidnapping — though not yet prevalent in India, is emerging as a serious cause for concern.

In recent months, an alarming increase in cyber kidnapping incidents has raised concerns among people, businesses, and law enforcement agencies worldwide. As the digital landscape evolves, so do the tactics employed by cybercriminals, leading to a surge in virtual kidnappings that exploit vulnerabilities in online security.

Cyber kidnapping, also known as virtual kidnapping or e-kidnapping, involves exploiting technology to target people for financial gain. Unlike traditional kidnappings where physical abduction occurs, cyber kidnappings leverage digital means to extort money or sensitive information from victims.

Perpetrators often employ tactics such as ransomware attacks, phishing, and social engineering to exploit unsuspecting people and organisations.

One of the most common methods involves criminals gaining access to personal information, such as addresses, family details, or workplace information, through various means. Subsequently, they use this information to instill fear in victims by claiming to have kidnapped a family member or loved one.

Threats are then made, demanding a ransom payment in exchange for the safety of the alleged victim and in a quick manner.

Law enforcement agencies and cybersecurity experts have noted a significant uptick in these incidents, with the pandemic exacerbating the vulnerability of people spending more time online. The remote work trend, increased reliance on digital communication, and a surge in online activities have provided cybercriminals with more opportunities to exploit unsuspecting victims.

“The consequences of cyber kidnapping can be severe, both emotionally and financially. Victims may suffer from anxiety, stress, and fear for the safety of their loved ones. Financial losses can also be substantial, as some people, fearing for their family members’ safety, may succumb to the extortion demands and pay the ransom,” say cybersecurity experts.

To combat the rising threat of cyber kidnapping, experts emphasise the importance of enhancing cybersecurity measures, including robust password management, multi-factor authentication, and regular software updates.

Last month, a dramatic incident unfolded in the state of Utah, USA, shedding light on a case where a Chinese family, whose son was a foreign exchange student in the United States, fell victim to an extortion scheme. Scammers deceived the family into believing that their son had been kidnapped, leading them to transfer an astounding USD 80,000. However, the truth behind the ordeal revealed that the Chinese student had chosen to isolate himself.

The chain of events commenced on December 28 of the previous year when the Riverdale Police in Utah received a distressing report from a local high school regarding the alleged kidnapping of Kai Zhuang, a foreign exchange student. School officials were contacted by the victim’s parents in China, who informed them that their child had been abducted.

The family was presented with a photograph of Kai Zhuang that conveyed an image of him being held against his will, raising concerns for his safety. Subsequently, the perpetrators demanded a ransom, compelling the family to transfer a substantial sum of 80,000 US dollars (approximately Rs 66 lakh) to bank accounts in China under the continuous threats issued by the alleged kidnappers.

Upon learning of the situation, Riverdale Police reached out to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), which provided insights into similar cases with comparable modus operandi that had recently occurred in the United States. It was revealed that Zhuang had never been kidnapped; instead, he was located in a tent approximately 40 km north of Brigham City, having isolated himself at the behest of the scammers.

Siddarth Malkania, a Delhi based lawyer said that Artificial Intelligence (AI) is spreading in every aspect of our life. Software tracks our purchasing habits; CCTV cameras watch streets and work with AI face recognition softwares.

“AI is helping in imaging and scanning human bodies and an army of drones/robots are being used in healthcare industries. But worse is that AI systems may or may be used by humans to commit crimes like invading and exposing privacy, harming reputation, phishing attacks, theft, forgery and fraud,” said Malkania.

Malkania further said that in India, there are punishments for identity theft and personation under Information Technology Act, 200 and extracting money through such attempts attracts punishment for extortion under Section 308 of BNS 2023.

But punishment is lesser in IT Act 2000 for such cases which is also bailable and it is high time that legislature should amend IT Act 2000 and make punishments more stringent for cyber crimes.

“Many times cyber crime is not reported due to lack of infrastructure at the level of Police stations and Courts. There are cyber cells now at Police Stations but we should also have dedicated cyber magistrate courts to resolve disputes related to computer networks. Such Cyber Magistrate Courts should be accessible to all in order to well serve the demands of the Internet society. Most proceedings should be online and confidential under Cyber Magistrate Courts” said Malkania.

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