For three days last fall, Mike Zhang didn’t know if his daughter, Juanwen, was dead or alive.
At home in China’s Xinjiang province, the businessman could not reach the 20-year-old student who was studying economics at the University of Toronto. Her phone was off and she wasn’t responding to his emails
In an exclusive interview with CBC Toronto, Zhang recounted the horror and stress of being at the centre of a missing person investigation that involved multiple police and government organizations investigating what turned out to be a scam aimed at extorting money from the families of young, vulnerable international students from China.
Before he even learned his daughter was missing, Zhang received a strange phone call one November day.
“I heard a man with a southern [Mandarin] accent who said, ‘Hello, Mr. Zhang.’ It gave me a bad vibe, so I hung up,” Zhang said in Mandarin.
He didn’t think much of it until his wife called a few hours later to report their daughter’s friends were looking for her. Their phone rang again.
“He said, ‘We have your daughter. Have one million [yuan] ready. Do not call the police or you’ll get a dead body,'” Zhang told CBC Toronto. “The only thought I had was she will never be able to come back. Someone has murdered her — that was my first reaction. I was so distraught.”
Late last year, Juanwen and two Chinese international high school students in the Toronto area fell victim to the ransom scam, which captured attention countrywide. Between September and November, the Chinese consulate in Toronto said it received about 10 calls daily from panicked parents and students, as the fraudsters sometimes posed as consul officials.
In subsequent calls from the scammers, Zhang insisted on getting some proof his daughter was alive. He was sent an audio recording that sounded like his daughter saying, “Dad, I’m fine,” but thought she sounded too calm to have been kidnapped.
Zhang called Toronto police, the Chinese embassy, and consulate. Officials urged him and Juanwen’s friends to keep trying to reach her.
Three days after she disappeared, Juanwen checked her email and saw dozens of messages. She realized it was all a scam and, when she contacted her family, so did they.
Read the full story over at CBC News.