Scammers zero in on UW international students

Cecilia Zhong uses a computer at FIUTS, a nonprofit that helps international students adjust to life at UW — and avoid becoming targets of scammers. (Photo by Bernard Ellouk)
Cecilia Zhong uses a computer at FIUTS, a nonprofit that helps international students adjust to life at UW — and avoid becoming targets of scammers. (Photo by Bernard Ellouk)

Mild Pacharamai had only been searching for apartments for a few days when she started receiving suspicious e-mails.

“There were a lot of people messaging me about their available apartments to sublet with all the details that were too good to be true, and asking for me to transfer money to confirm a sublet,” she says.

Pacharamai, an international student from Thailand, believes she might have been targeted because of what she included in her e-mails.

“I think they know about me because I put in the message about being an international student and wouldn’t arrive at Seattle until September,” she says.

Scams like the one that targeted Pacharamai are becoming increasingly common, argues Maj. Steve Rittereiser, the UW Police Department’s Public Information Officer. He says anywhere from 10 to 60 attempted scams are reported to UW police each month, and there are likely many more that go unreported.

“We are definitely seeing these cases grow given the success of previous attempts,” he said. “[It] seems there is focus on international students,”

Era Schrepfer, Executive Director of FIUTS — a UW organization dedicated to building a community for international students — is often one of the first points of contact after an international student has been targeted by a scammer.

“They come here after they’ve had a frustrating or scary experience of being targeted,” she says.

“Students get calls from people pretending to be embassy or consulate officials or tax officials. These people often say that there is something wrong with the student’s visa or immigration status,”

And much like Maj. Rittereiser, Schrepfer believes scams targeting her students are on the rise.

“There has definitely been an increase,” she says.

Common scams targeting international students

Of the scamming techniques used against UW international students, two of the most common are IRS e-mail scams and telephone scams.

The former usually entails receiving an official looking e-mail (like the one at right) that accuses the recipient of having failed to make one payment or another to the federal agency.

“Getting an e-mail form the IRS looks scary and official, and [they] want to comply as much as possible with the law,” Schrepfer reasons.

“These students are anxious about following all the rules. So when somebody indicates that they are not following the rules or are missing something they usually want to just fix it,” she continues. “Often times their response is more immediate, whereas you and I might ask more questions they might just be like ‘oh my god, let me fix it.’”

Much like the e-mail scams, telephone scams targeted at international students often rely on a similar veneer of legitimacy and urgency.

“Students get calls from people pretending to be embassy or consulate officials or tax officials. These people often say that there is something wrong with the student’s visa or immigration status,” says Schrepfer.

As with the e-mail scam a fine or fee is always involved and the student either hasn’t paid it or needs urgently to do so.

Schrepfer believes that scammers engaging in e-mail scams look for e-mail addresses that end in JP for Japan. But how they get access to UW.edu addresses is still a mystery of sorts.

“Fortunately, we’ve limited access to the student directory. You must have a UW Net ID to find a student’s e-mail,” Maj. Rittereiser points out when asked about the targeting.

Maj. Rittereiser argues that this is why there is also a high number of social media based scams.

“They can look for people that have names that aren’t common and approach them that way, instead of trying to find an e-mail, which can be harder.”

The tuition scam

Social media played a role in one of the largest scams to target UW students in recent history.

Last summer’s tuition scam saw dozens of international students, primarily from China, scammed out of thousands of dollars. Overall, UW students lost close to $190,000, says the UW PD.

The scam spread primarily through a Chinese social media app called WeChat. International students were told by friends through the app that they could save five percent off of their tuition by allowing a phony bank to pay their tuition.

The scammers required that the students provide them with their UW Net ID and password. Once they had that info, scammers would use fake credit cards to pay the tuition, generating a confirmation from UW. The students would then give the scammers a check for the tuition — roughly $11,642 minus the 5% discount.

Only weeks later would they come to realize that the credit cards were fake, the tuition payments didn’t go through, and they had lost thousands of dollars.

The scam was unique in that its breadth and in the personal relationship the students had with the scammer, who was a member of a student group and a friend to many of the students who were ultimately scammed, says Maj. Rittereiser.

Sunny Cai, a sophomore at UW originally from Beijing, was one of the many international students at UW that nearly fell prey to that scam.

Cai says that after hearing about the tuition discount deal, she went to Bank of America and spoke with her banker, whom she credits with saving her from becoming a victim.

“She told me it was a scam,” Cai says.

The banker had heard about the scam from other students who came to her looking to withdraw large sums of money from their accounts.

“They were telling her that if they gave the tuition to their friend they could get a discount. She was trying to tell other students that it was a scam and some of them still wouldn’t believe her. She was physically trying to stop them from taking out cash,” Cai says.

Dozens of UW students found out about the scam and spread the word using the same WeChat app that had been used to propagate it in the first place.

But many were not as fortunate as Cai, and lost big.

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