International Student Scams: What to Know

Prospective international students and their parents may be concerned about scams that target international students in the U.S. However, learning about the different fraud schemes before arriving in the U.S. can help ensure the safety and security of students once they begin their studies.

“There has been an uptick in scams in the last nine months,” says Adria L. Baker, associate vice provost for international education and executive director of the Office of International Students and Scholars at Rice University in Texas.

She says the scams target both undergraduate and graduate international students, particularly incoming, new international students but also recent graduates participating in the Optional Practical Training program, known as OPT. Baker says examples include scammers impersonating government agents by phone, threatening students will lose their immigration status if they don’t act and asking students to buy gift cards or send money via wire transfer.

“Recently, there has been an influx of new, incoming students getting offers for an on-campus job by some faculty member. The offers are not real, and they are using random faculty members’ names and emails,” Baker says.

[Read: 3 Steps Incoming Fall 2021 International Students Should Take.]

To build awareness, she says Rice sends periodic emails to international students, posts updates on the Office of International Students and Scholars’ website and incorporates the information in newsletters to incoming students. The office also shares a “SCAM” infographic — which lists steps international students can take — via emails, on the school website and during orientation meetings on Zoom, and will include it in the fall 2021 newsletter.

Here are three tips for international students to keep in mind once they begin their studies at a U.S. college or university:

— Know the common scams.

— Guard personal information.

— Report anything suspicious.

Know the Common Scams

Prospective and current international students should be aware of common scams, such as those related to immigration, housing and taxes, experts say. For example, last month, the U.S. government’s Student and Exchange Visitor Program sent out a warning to schools about a scam where callers impersonate government officials and ask students to provide their immigration information.

Beyond SEVP, scammers may pretend to be other government officials from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement or the Internal Revenue Service, or claim to be a police officer or university official. They may threaten students with dismissal from the university, deportation from the U.S. or police arrest if payment is not immediately made, experts say.

“They tell them they are in violation of their status as an international student and that they must either wire money or get gift cards within a certain period of time. Victims are told not to speak to anyone about this or they will be picked up and exported or jailed,” says Beth Riley, assistant director of the Ivanhoe International Center at the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology.

Riley says scammers get into victims’ heads “by telling them that they know the victim is scared and the scammer is just trying to help them.” She says one student lost more than $5,000 in gift cards and that the scammer mentioned he has a daughter around the student’s age.

“They first really scare the student and then try to play good cop. This student usually speaks at our orientation. It really means more coming from a peer,” Riley says.

There are also scams promising a cheaper or discounted way to pay tuition, says Maureen Miller, director of communications for the Office of International Affairs at Ohio State University–Columbus. “More recently, there has been an increase in rental listing scams, where students pay a deposit on a listing that is not real,” Miller says.

[Read: How to Avoid Scholarship Scams.]

International students in general often fall victim to fake official and “too good to be true” scams, says Jeffrey Foot, executive director of LewerMark Student Insurance and former Northwest Missouri State University director of admissions and international affairs.

“‘I found this mint condition two-year-old Lexus RX 450h for only $7,000 on eBay! I just sent the money and get my keys tomorrow!’ is a sentence I hope I never hear a student say to me again,” Foot says.

Case Western Reserve University in Ohio sent out a newsletter in December 2020 “when there was a flurry of scam activity,” says Marielena Maggio, director of International Student Services at the school’s Center for International Affairs. The incidents involved employment scams where the scammer sends an email that appears to be coming from a Case Western Reserve staff or faculty member.

Sandra Guile, director of communications at the International Association of Better Business Bureaus Inc., says since international graduate students are often older and potentially looking for jobs to remain in the U.S., “it is possible that scammers may target them specifically with residency and green card scams.”

Guard Personal Information

Experts advise international students to store their Social Security card in a secure location rather than carry it with them; shred nonessential documents that list personal information; and avoid opening emails from unknown sources and clicking on suspicious hyperlinks.

“Sometimes scammers are in possession of the student’s personal information — name, passport number, address, date of birth — which helps legitimize the caller. Nevertheless, students should still hang up the phone,” says Jonathan W. Tyner, associate director of International Student and Scholar Services at Texas State University.

Tyner says international students should know that the U.S. government sends letters through certified mail “and under no circumstance will the government demand immediate payment without contest, especially through gift card payments or wire transfer.”

He adds that the government “would never communicate by phone, email or text” to threaten students with being arrested, detained or deported if payment is not made.

“The best defense is be aware and do not give those you do not know your information,” Baker says.

[Read: What International Students Should Know About Maintaining Visa Status.]

Report Anything Suspicious

Any unusual calls, texts, emails or letters received should be reported to the school’s international student office and campus police, experts say.

For example, in September 2020, an international student at the University of Illinois–Springfield received a phone call from a person claiming to be with the Social Security office. The person said the student’s Social Security application was suspended due to suspicious activity. The incident was reported to UIS police, according to the school’s website.

“We have the campus police to address this issue during our international student orientation,” says Rick Lane, director of International Student Services at the University of Illinois–Springfield. “And any time we learn of anything new, we post it on the news section of our website with a link on the front page.”

Foot says if international students fall prey to scams and give away bank or credit card information, “they should contact the fraud or complaint center for their institution,” if there is one, or reach out to the school’s international office or center. He says banks and credit card companies have systems in place to change account numbers and replace compromised cards, and sometimes help victims get their money back.

If students are victims of identity theft, Foot says they should contact the Federal Trade Commission and follow steps on the FTC’s website, and also file a report with the local police department.

Guile suggests sharing the information on and to include as much information as possible to help warn others.

“I had one student that was outside my office on the phone for 45 minutes with a scammer” who was trying to get the student’s Social Security number, address and immigration information, such as his ID number in the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System, Riley says. “He finally came into my office and told me about this, with the person on the phone. It took me about two minutes for him to give me the phone so I could yell at the person on the other line.”

She says the student was scared and visibly shaken from the experience. But after Riley talked to him about the incident, he understood that it was a scam and that he should contact the school in the future if he receives another call asking for personal information.

“I told him to make sure he talks to all his friends about this experience,” Riley says. “Word of mouth is so vital as well.”

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