There’s a whole host of scams targeted at students, and you can be particularly vulnerable as an international student getting to grips with living independently in a new country.
There are countless benefits to studying abroad and it’s unlikely you’ll ever be the victim of international student scams, but it’s important you understand the dangers and know what to look out for. Here’s some of the biggest scams, how to spot them, and what to do if you do fall victim.
Visa phone scams
This is one of the most common scams that affect international students, and cases have been reported all over the world. The precise details may change, but this scam usually involves:
- A student receiving a phone call from someone claiming to be from immigration authorities, an education agency, or another legitimate organization
- They are told there is a problem with their visa or other immigration documents
- The student is asked to give personal details over the phone and pay a fine
- They may ask for the fine (often around $1,500) to be paid by money transfer through a service like Western Union or Moneygram
- They claim that if the fine is not paid, the student will be reported and potentially deported
If you receive a call like this:
- Do not give the caller any personal information
- Do not confirm that any information they already have about you is correct
- Do not make any payments requested
- Hang up immediately, or tell the caller that you will report them to the police
Report the incident as soon as possible. You can contact your international student advisor who can report the call to the police on your behalf.
Chinese students are often targeted by this type of scam, so should be especially vigilant. In Australia alone, around 900 similar scams targeting the Chinese community have been reported by the ACCC's Scamwatch in 2019, with losses totaling more than $1.5 million.
What to look out for
The government or immigration authorities will never contact you by phone demanding money, no matter what country you are studying in. Never give money to anyone calling you like this.
Another clear sign that you’re being contacted by a scammer is if they ask for payment in the form of gift cards, iTunes vouchers, cryptocurrency (Bitcoin for example), or by money transfer services like Western Union. Legitimate organizations will never ask for payment in this way.
Student accommodation scams
Finding somewhere safe, convenient, and affordable to live as an international student will be one of your main concerns. Unfortunately, scammers know how important student accommodation is, and could try and take advantage of your need to find a home.
There are a few potential rental scams you need to be aware of:
Fraudulent property adverts
This is one of the most common rental scams you need to avoid. Here’s how it works:
- The fraudulent landlord posts a property advert online
- When a student makes an inquiry, they’ll be asked to send a holding deposit, or send a bank statement as proof they can afford the rent
- The scammer may say they’re out of the country or unwell so cannot show them around the property
Once the scammer has received the money they’ll stop all contact, or will arrange to mail the keys and paperwork, which will never arrive.
The adverts posted online are often copied from other student rental properties, so appear to be legitimate. Others will provide general details like the address, number of bedrooms, and rental amount, but won’t give any pictures.
Rented property scam
This is similar to the fake advert scam, however in this case the fraudster has rented a property, and then advertises it as available to students.
They will then show students around the property while they’re living there, so it appears to be a legitimate rental property. After the viewing, they’ll ask for a deposit and first month’s rent up front, and sometimes even supply the student with fake keys to the property.
When the student arrives to move in they’ll find the keys don’t work and the scammer has disappeared.
What to look out for
Here’s what to watch out for to make sure you avoid falling for a rental scam:
- Be wary if the rent and location seem too good to be true.
- Watch out if you’re asked to send money to an overseas account.
- Never pay a deposit without viewing the property first.
- Avoid adverts that don’t show pictures of the property or if multiple adverts have the same photos.
- Check the contact details given. Try any landline numbers provided as fraudsters often provide false numbers, and beware of any adverts with only an email address.
- To ensure you avoid a fake advert, ask your university’s international office or student union to suggest a trustworthy letting agent or landlord.
Studying abroad can be very expensive, so the offer of a scholarship that covers some, or all, of your tuition fees, will be very tempting. Unfortunately, scammers also know how attractive a scholarship can be, and will exploit your eagerness to get one.
They advertise a fake scholarship, usually offering a large amount, and ask for a payment upfront when you apply. Once they receive the money the scholarship offer will disappear.
What to look out for
Here are some of the things to watch out for when looking for a scholarship:
- Application fees: Do not send money upfront to apply for a scholarship. Universities or other organizations that offer scholarships will never ask you for money when applying.
- Guaranteed scholarships: If a company promises you a ‘guaranteed scholarship’, they are probably trying to scam you. Legitimate scholarships will never be advertised as guaranteed.
- Loan fees: Most scholarships will not come with any fees that you need to pay, so be wary of any that have them, especially if they ask you to pay them upfront.
If you see any of the above, do not apply for the scholarship and report the advert to your local authorities.
Virtual kidnapping scam
This sinister scam may sound far-fetched, but there have been several reported cases targeting Chinese students in the US, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand. Here’s how it works:
- Scammers call the student pretending to be high ranking officials from China
- They inform the student that they’re involved in a criminal plot in China and are at risk of arrest
- They convince them, sometimes through the threat of violence, to make fake hostage videos of themselves
- These videos are then used to get a ransom from the student’s parents in China
- The students are also persuaded to destroy their mobile phones and to even go into hiding so they can’t be contacted
- The scammers threaten them and their families if they don’t comply with the requests
Sometimes the victims of these scams are told that the videos will serve as re-enactments that are needed by the Chinese police, and that they’ll be arrested if they don’t agree.
In a case in Vancouver, students were persuaded to avoid police by hiding in a local motel and speaking in code until the ransom money had been received.
What to look out for
These scams can seem very realistic, and victims are often fooled by the caller’s authentic use of Mandarin, and the caller ID showing a Chinese consulate number. However, here’s how you can identify these scams:
Chinese police will not arrest you in a foreign country, or ask you to stage photos or videos. If the Chinese police need to contact you, they would do so through local authorities, not directly over the phone
If you receive a phone call that you suspect is attempting to stage a virtual kidnapping contact your university immediately and do not communicate with the scammers further.
Cases of students being used as money mules to hide stolen money are on the rise. In 2017, the UK saw a 36% increase of under 21s acting as mules, with students, in particular, being targeted.
Money mules are approached by criminal groups to receive stolen money on their behalf and send it on, taking a cut of the money. This is classed as money laundering and can result in a hefty fine and even a prison sentence.
Students are often targeted by criminal organizations to act as mules because they know they often are in need of money to cover tuition fees and living costs.
What to look out for
To make sure you don’t become a money mule, you should:
- Ignore any emails that offer easy money in return for accepting transfers into your personal bank account
- Never share your bank details with anyone you don’t know
- Report any unexpected payments you see arrive in your bank account
It might be tempting to agree to receive money in return for a payment, but it’s important to remember the consequences of being caught can be very serious.
Other student scams to be aware of
Here are some of the other scams that can affect both international and domestic students:
- Student loan scam: This scam, seen mainly in the UK, involves phishing emails designed to appear to be from the Student Loans Company (SLC), which aims to trick students into giving up their account information in order to receive their loan.
- Ticketing scams: Here scammers provide students with fake tickets to events, either through bogus websites or by posing as a ticket agent.
- Job scams: Fake job adverts targeting students have been reported that ask for completed application forms which include personal and banking details as well as copies of identification documents. These details are then used to steal the student’s identity.
- Ghostwriting scams: These scams see third parties offering to write a student’s essay for them in return for a fee. However, once they send their money over the completed essay is never received.
Top tips for avoiding scams
Here are some top tips for making sure you avoid scams while studying abroad:
- Be suspicious of any phone call, email, text message, or letter you receive from someone you don’t know
- Never send money to someone unless you are 100% confident you know who you are sending it to
- Never give your personal or banking details to anyone you don’t know
- Be cautious of any offer that sounds too good to be true
- If you’ve never heard of the company that is contacting you, ignore them or research them thoroughly before responding
- If you ever suspect something might be spam or fraudulent, ignore it and do not respond
Who to report a scam to
If you think you’ve been the victim of a scam or fraud, report it to your place of study. If you have a designated mentor or buddy let them know, or contact your university’s international office.
Alternatively, you can report the incident directly to the relevant authorities of the country you’re studying in.
If you're an international student studying in the US and you want to report a scam, you can contact the Homeland Security Investigations Tip Line: 866-DHS-2-ICE.
If you think you’ve been the victim of a scam in the UK, you can report the incident to Action Fraud:
- Call them on 0300 123 2040
- Report the fraud using their online tool
If you think you’ve fallen victim to fraud in Canada, you should:
- Contact the Royal Canadian Mounted Police on 1-888-495-8501
- Report it through the Canadian Anti-Fraud Center’s online Fraud Reporting System
To report a scam if you are studying in Australia you can:
- Report it online to Scamwatch
- Call the Australian Tax Office (ATO) on 1800 008 540 if you’ve paid money or provided personal information to a suspected scammer
- Report it to the ATO online if you have received a scam call or email, but not paid any more or given any personal details
- Report the incident to the police station local to your university