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Outsmarting the Scammers: the Ultimate Guide for International Students

Scammers

Scammers? Every few months, someone thinks up a new way to scam international students.

It’s sad, but it’s true.

These scams are often designed specifically to target international students. In 2015 for example, fraudsters offering 10% discounts on university fees conned up to 6 students in Melbourne.

Scams can show up in places that you trust, as was the case when nearly 300 students were sold fake airline tickets by a user on a popular international student Facebook page. Most of the students were trying to fly back home to visit family.

Anyone can be fooled by a clever scam.  So how do you protect yourself when you’re away from home, speaking a foreign language and aren’t always sure what’s official and who’s trustworthy?

Insider Guides spoke to people with experience of scams targeting international students. Read on to know out what the most common types of scams are, the warning signs and how to protect yourself.

Agency Scams

Scammers

Most Australian universities rely on education agents to recruit students for them.

Agents are paid on commission – for every student recruited, they get a fee. Because the agents operate in different countries, it’s difficult for universities to monitor them.

This leaves students vulnerable.

Warning signs

A bad agent might:

  • Charge you large amounts to make an application.
  • Make a fraudulent application and then disappear.
  • Advise you to choose a certain university because that university pays the agent more.
  • Downplay the amount of English you will need to know.
  • Offer to give you fake documents like IELTS certificates or academic transcripts, at a price.
  • Misrepresent themselves as working directly for a certain University.
  • Ask for money for services that universities will provide for free like orientation and accommodation support.

A 2014 report, ‘The agent question’ examined data from students, institutions and agents themselves.  The report found that not all agents are bad, but there is difficulty in knowing how common scams are.

The same report found that students who use agents tend to be younger and have English as a second language. It’s possible that some students don’t know that they’re being cheated.

The University of Melbourne’s International Student Union Office Bearer, Yu Kong Low told Insider Guides, “I’ve heard about agencies giving very poor terms and conditions, but…they’re technically legal.”

Agents can provide all kinds of services and average costs varies greatly, making it hard to know what to expect.  About 25% of people who use agents pay nothing. 13% pay more than U.S. $5,000, with the average being U.S. $500.

The range in price and services make it very hard to know if you’re being treated unfairly.

How to protect yourself:

  • If you come across an agent who charges more than average, think about if it’s worth it to you and make sure you shop around before making a decision.
  • Be suspicious of anything that is ‘non-refundable’.
  • Find out what credentials are required by an agent operating in your country and ask to see them.
  • Do your own research. Most university websites will have information on what requirements you’ll need to meet. Most will also have translated material, or even phone services specifically for international students who have enquiries.
  • Ask universities if they have agents who officially represent them in your country.
  • Find out what services your university of interest offers for free.
  • Bring someone with you when you meet agents, like your parents.
  • Walk away if you are offered false documents. It will only cause you trouble in the long run.

Discount scams

Scammers

“People who are out to scam students can be extraordinarily sophisticated and clever in the way they do it,” says Elizabeth Capp, the Director of Students and Equity at The University of Melbourne.

Indeed, it seems like once one scam is uncovered a new and different one takes it’s place.  Many scams will combine multiple types of tricks.

“One of the things we observe they do is recruit other students to the cause,” says Ms Capp.

She’s referring to a scheme where students approached other students, offering fake discounts on university fees.

In some cases students claimed to be ‘agents’ of the university. In other cases it seems, this scam began with something smaller – the offering of 10% discounts on utility bills through online advertisements.

Yu Kong explains that the trick was, “they’d actually give you a discount.”

“Then the same people would say, ‘hey I can do that for university fees as well,’ which are obviously much larger than electricity or water bills and then they’d just run away with the money.”

This scheme had a lot of elements: fake online advertising, building a false sense of trust and recruiting real people (some of them actual students) in order to seem credible.

Ms. Capp says she never cease to bewilder at the creativity of scammers. Online and off, there are some general things to watch out for:

Warning signs:

  • People or organisations offering surprisingly low prices or large discounts.
  • Lack of details. A fake organisation will probably not have very clear contact details or may be based overseas. They also may not have ‘fine print’ detail about terms and conditions or dispute resolution.
  • Inflexible payment options. Someone may insist that you make payments immediately, in full or only pay by electronic funds transfer or a wire service. They may not offer payment through a secure payment service such as PayPal or a credit card transaction.

How to protect yourself:

  • Be suspicious of anything involving large sums of money.
  • If anyone contact or approach you claiming to represent a university, the Australian government or other organisations, make no commitments. Contact that institution directly and ask them if they usually approach people in that manner.
  • Stay connected with your friends and classmates. They will usually be the first people to hear about scams.
  • Stay engaged with your university. Orientation programs can include educating you about scams. Your uni may also have a student union specifically for international students.
  • Log onto Scamwatch.gov and read up on common types of scams
  • Try to conduct business through reputable websites and organisations and steer away from forums and social media.
  • Remember, if it seems too good to be true, it usually is.

Accommodation Scams

Scammers

Rodrigo is a Communications student from Mexico.  He says that the most common type of scams he sees against international students relate to accommodation.

In his experience, “It all starts on Facebook, it all starts with people desperately looking for accommodation.“

When looking for a place to stay Rodrigo joined a Facebook group for Latinos in Australia, but encountered some shameful behaviour from advertisers.

One advertiser asked for him to send her $700 bond before they had met in person and also lied about the proximity of her home to Rodrigo’s university.

How to protect yourself from scammers:

  • Always inspect a property, if the renter won’t let you, do not proceed.
  • Search the property online and find out where it is and if it suits your needs.
  • Ask about all the terms and conditions of your stay.
  • Try to look for accommodation through official channels and website rather than through forums and social media.
  • Keep copies of all correspondence with the people you’re renting from.
  • Avoid paying by money transfer if you can.

Rodrigo also pointed out another issue that affected friends of his; exploitation and blackmail. He knows of someone who asked students staying with them to work as well as pay for their accommodation. They were expecting students to do the dishes and live under strict rules, like not being able to have visitors.

Rodrigo says that these conditions wouldn’t necessarily be clear in the beginning, but that, “progressively it starts being bad once they are living in that place.”

If the students spoke up, the owner would then threaten to tell immigration that they had breached their 20-hour working limit while ‘working’ within the household.

“They were afraid, “ says Rodrigo.

This is an example of scams that try to use your fears and anxieties against you.  In a similar scheme, Ms Capp says that several years ago fake material spread telling students how they could get medical certificates that would get them special consideration for assessment.

“They present it in such a way that it was clearly quite convincing to a number of students who simply didn’t know any better.”

These are very cruel types of scams that in the worst case, can wind up with a student being blackmailed.

Blackmailing

Scammers

Some scams try to involve you in wrongdoing, or just accuse you of wrong-doing in order to blackmail you.

For example, they force Curtin University in WA to issue a warning to its students when a person on an essay chat forum attempted to blackmail an international student.

The person send advice on a ‘sample essay’ to the student. Who took personal information from the student’s social media accounts. They tell the student to pay a large amount of money or else they would be reported for plagiarism.

How to protect yourself:

  • Never put any personal information online such as your address or student number
  • Do not respond to the scammer(s).
  • Only look for help on academic, health or immigration matters through official channels.
  • Don’t induce yourself on illegal offers, it may work out very badly for you.

Of course, these aren’t all the scams that are out there, just some of the most common ones. It’s important to always keep an eye out and double check anything seems too good to be true.

Where to go for help:

If you suspect something is a scam or that you have been scammed yourself, there are numerous things you can do.

  • You can report scams to the ACCC through Scamwatch.gov
  • If you think you’ve been scammed or are ever concerned for your personal safety, report the matter to your local police station straight away.
  • Most universities have free legal service and advice for international students and some can be anonymous if you want.
  • You can also lodge official complaints through your university.
  • Above all, never be afraid to ask for help.  In the past, universities provide assistance to students who have been scammed. But they must know what has happened to be able to help you.

(Source: Insider Guides)

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