Four recent cases where foreign students in Canada went missing have now been linked to a scam targeting young overseas Chinese, police in Toronto and Hamilton say.
All four missing young people were safely located in recent days after fraudsters tried unsuccessfully to extort ransoms from their families in China.
While the three cases in Toronto were reported in the media, there was also a similar case in Hamilton, where police were contacted on Friday after relatives in China and in Mississauga lost contact with a McMaster University student.
When the second-year exchange student was eventually retraced, he told police he had received a call claiming that his credit card had been compromised and that he was not to get in touch with his family, said Jackie Penman, a spokeswoman for the Hamilton Police.
While he was absent, the scammers tried to get his family to pay a ransom, she said.
During that same period, Toronto police was dealing with the disappearance of two women, 20-year-old Zhang Juanwen and 17-year-old Liu (Kandy) Yue, and 16-year-old Xu (Jaden) Ke.
Carrying a backpack, Mr. Ke had last been seen Thursday morning in Scarborough. "Jaden was located in Toronto, safe and sound," Detective Scott Hampson of 41 Division said in an interview Monday.
Toronto police were in contact with Mr. Ke's family and thwarted an attempt to get them to pay a ransom, Det. Hampson said.
He said the swindle that targeted the missing Chinese students typically involves a call from someone pretending to be from the Chinese consulate or bank, telling the victims that they have to turn off their phones and go into hiding because of an impending arrest or credit-card problem.
"These are younger kids being contacted. The people talking to them really appear to be concerned for them. They unfortunately fall for it and become victims," Det. Hampson said.
Once the students are lured into disappearing, their families are then extorted, thinking their children have been abducted, he said.
Ms. Liu, who disappeared in North York on Friday morning, was located Sunday night in Kirkland, in the West Island part of Montreal, after she eventually turned on her phone and became aware of the scam, said Constable Caroline de Kloet, a Toronto police spokeswoman.
Ms. Zhang had similarly followed instructions from scammers to keep quiet and go to a location outside Toronto. She eventually contacted police on Saturday and no money was paid.
Constable de Kloet said investigators are trying to determine if the same suspects are behind the three Toronto cases.
The four cases led the Chinese consulate in Toronto to post a warning on its website on Monday. The notice said criminals, using the threat of an impending Interpol arrest warrant, would manipulate victims into staying away from the internet and avoiding the use of their bank cards.
The consulate also cautioned that the scammer might adjust their script following the media attention into the cases.
"Chinese students and new immigrants must be vigilant and remain on guard!" the notice said.
The RCMP, China's Canadian embassy and the Chinese consulate-general in Vancouver have issued similar warnings earlier this year.