Scammers target international students

Callers threaten to cancel victims’ admission to the University if they don’t hand over money.

Barry Lytton

A phone rings in the middle of the day. Minutes later, it buzzes alive again with a caller listed as the “University of Minnesota Police Department.” A menacing voice declares an outstanding arrest warrant.

Scammers use this calling strategy to try to trick students out of their money, and the fraudulent crime has noticeably surfaced at the school, according to a public safety update emailed to the University community Wednesday.

No University students have succumbed to the callers’ requests, according to police, but law enforcement and other metro area agencies say they have fielded many reports from would-be victims. And other colleges nationwide have seen similar scams targeting students.

As part of the hoax, callers identify themselves as UMPD or FBI agents and tell victims they have overdue taxes or legal fees, according to the update. The scammers then threaten to cancel victims’ admission to the University if they do not drop off or transfer the funds.

“Someone poses as a police officer or someone poses as an immigration official and says … ‘You owe a fine,’ ‘You owe a tax,’” said Duane Rohovit, an adviser for the University’s International Student and Scholar Services.

Six students have consulted University Student Legal Service after receiving suspicious calls, said Karmen McQuitty, a staff attorney for USLS. But it’s possible that others have complied with scammers and didn’t notify the police, she said.

As of Monday, the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office has been made aware of dozens of these attempted swindles, said Hennepin County Sheriff Richard Stanek.

“We’re seeing a number of calls come in to our [911] dispatch facility from all over the county,” Stanek said.

The scam’s novelty is that the call’s origin is masked and replaced by another phone number — in these cases, that of local law enforcement offices.

“These scammers are ‘spoofing’ the calls, so it comes from different numbers,” Stanek said. “They’re able to do that through the Internet somehow.”

But in reality, the police department does not collect taxes, nor will it demand or take any form payment over the phone, University police Deputy Chief Chuck Miner said.

Although the callers are persistent, their façade crumbles once victims demand they back up their claims, McQuitty said.

“They’ll just keep calling, so the students will finally answer,” she said. “When the students start to ask some questions, then it turns into some other threats — ‘You’re going to be kicked out of school,’ ‘We’re going to tell the University.’”

Of the six students who approached USLS, five were foreign, McQuitty said.

“It seems they’re targeting international students,” she said.

The public safety alert sent last week also said the ploy appears to take aim at international students.

These students are new to the country and might have little support or are perhaps unfamiliar with the United States’ police and justice systems, McQuitty said.

She added that international students also tend to have more disposable money, which could make them more attractive victims for scammers.

“One [scam] that I’ve heard of is students were being told they owe an immigration tax — and obviously there isn’t such a thing,”
Rohovit said.

The University and its home state are not the only communities being targeted by spoofed calls.

Across the nation, a swath of universities’ international student offices have posted public safety notices about similar scams.

Cornell University’s International Students and Scholars Office sent out an email Friday cautioning students to take heed of such spoof calls, said Brendan O’Brien, the office’s director.

Colorado State University has also dealt with similar ploys this school year.

In recent years, other academic institutions like Purdue University, Stanford University and New Jersey’s Fairleigh Dickinson University have also alerted their students about potential phone scams.

In last week’s University of Minnesota email update, Vice President for University Services Pamela Wheelock advised students and community members not to provide personal information, and instead to contact UMPD at 612-624-2677.

Stanek also urged individuals who have an uneasy gut feeling about any suspicious phone calls to report it to the authorities.

“If it doesn’t feel right, verify it,” he said.