When most students think of the life-changing experiences associated with study abroad, they don’t think of fraud or extortion. But for many international students at Portland State, the difficulties of learning a new language and acclimating to a new culture expose them to increased risk of being targeted for scams.
“Austin”, whose name has been changed, is an international student who just recently arrived to Portland State and spoke with Portland State Vanguard about how a scam cost him several hundred dollars.
While studying in the library on his laptop, Austin noticed what seemed like a virus. It instructed him to call a phone number in order to resolve an issue with his computer.
“I thought he was a Microsoft employee,” Austin said. “He said he was going to fix it, but he required 300 dollars.” Austin bought iTunes cards totaling 300 dollars, scratched the codes, and sent them to the person posing as a Microsoft employee. The extortion didn’t end there, however.
As Austin went on to explain, “[H]e asked me for more [money] to sign up for an identity protection service…I even went to the Microsoft store near Pioneer Place. I asked if it was a real Microsoft phone number and they said, ‘No, of course not.’”
Austin said he felt embarrassed afterward, and because it was early in the morning, he felt rushed to act.
“I didn’t have time to think about it seriously and ask other people,” Austin explained. For any students that think they might be caught up in suspicious activity, Austin’s recommendation is to “calm down, think, ask other people and then act.”
Matt Masuranari, a campus police officer, described the prevalence of these kinds of scams: “It’s definitely not infrequent. I can’t give you an exact number, but it’s not something that is outside our normal daily operations and activities where we have to mitigate damage caused by scammers.”
Scammers often take more than the victim’s money; they rob people of their trust in the community and in themselves. Most people who get scammed are likely to stay hidden because of the social stigma attached to having a momentary lapse in street smarts.
This silence leads to a lack of information about what’s going on. All scams should be reported to the Campus Public Safety Office, which aids in combating future attempts to scam students. “All reports go into the law enforcement database, Masunari said. “Depending on what type of crime it is, it can be tracked that way.”
Thi Nguyen, former coordinator for PSU’s Organization of International Students, received a voicemail earlier this month from someone attempting to impersonate the Internal Revenue Service.
The voicemail featured a robotic female voice informing Nguyen that she was receiving a final notice from “Internal Revenue Services”. It went on to claim that the IRS was filing a lawsuit against her, and advised her to call a phone number to review information related to her case.
Aside from tax season, when scams become more common, Nguyen recommends students stay on their toes when renting via Craigslist or similar services. She went on to describe an interaction she had while looking for a place to live after arriving in the U.S.
“[Someone] said you have to deposit 1000 dollars before you move in,” Nguyen explained. “I searched the address on my friend’s advice, and turns out it was a restaurant.”
Unfortunately, there is little to no recourse for students caught up in most kinds of swindling. Scammers often use third-party services that make it significantly more difficult–or even impossible–to track them down.
“For person-to-person transactions, Western Union isn’t going to make a lot of sense,” Masunari said. “[I]t’s very difficult to track those sort of transactions.”
Masunari went on to explain how credit card payments usually leave a trail which can be followed up on, while services such as Western Union are essentially the same as sending money in the mail.
Another campus police officer, Peter Ward, offered a recommendation to avoid scams: “If you have any kind of interaction over the computer where someone is requesting that you send either iTunes cards, a wire transfer or some kind of monetary exchange, then you need to be suspicious.”
Ward also suggested that money is not always the aim of fraud and deception. “[B]e mindful that if someone is buying something from eBay or something like that, they shouldn’t go to some obscure place to [pick up] the article. Make sure it’s a public place.”
When purchasing something online, Ward advises students to suggest a place on campus, like the Campus Public Safety Office lobby, if the transaction will be completed in-person.
“If they know they are coming into a police station [they may back down],” Ward said. “If they are genuine, they wouldn’t have a problem meeting outside or around the station.”
Nguyen also had some advice on how students can avoid scams by consulting resources such as PSU staff or Friends of Overseas Citizens and University Students (a faith-based organization, focusing on international students).
”Making friends is good,” Nguyen said, “But so is knowing the resources you can use. If you know FOCUS or any advisor, just call them to confirm.”
For international students in an unfamiliar environment, even asking a local student or someone more familiar with American culture and norms can be enough to identify a scam.
“[Y]ou are in the U.S.–you don’t really know what’s going on. It doesn’t have to be an advisor, just ask someone that you know to make sure.”