Recently, an international student, who asked not to be named, was convinced to give up $280 to someone who claimed to be from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, and at least two other people were contacted by the same person, said Linda Melville, associate director for international student and scholar services for the Global Education Office.
Although these scams have been happening for years, they have recently been increasing, she said.
“This is not the first time,” Melville said. “It’s gotten really bad in the last two years.”
In this latest scam, someone claiming to be from USCIS will call the potential victim and say there has been a problem processing the student’s immigration paperwork, and that they need to pay a fee to fix the problem, she said.
This time the scammer had the students’ personal information, including their passport number, the day they entered the United States, their email address and their date of birth, lending credibility.
“Obviously, people who are new to the U.S. are an easy mark,” Melville said. “The U.S. is pretty difficult to get into and there’s a lot of officiousness and bureaucracy, and they don’t know that’s not what’s normal.”
The victim in this case said the person who called him claimed the student’s fingerprints and pictures, which were taken when he first entered the country, were processed incorrectly and that the victim would have to pay for everything to be reprocessed, but would be reimbursed.
The phone number on the victim’s caller ID matched that of USCIS’s customer service number, so the victim was willing to hand over the money, which he was told to do by purchasing a prepaid debit card and then providing the scammer with the card number, the victim said.
“I don’t know the procedure,” the victim said. “And they were calling from the customer service number, so I gave them the payment.”
After sending the initial payment demanded by the scammers, the victim then received a call asking for an additional $749.
That is when the victim went to the police.
According to the UNMPD report, the victim called the scammers, who identified themselves as either Sean Morris or simply Kevin, and handed the phone over to a police officer.
The officer advised the scammers that the situation had been reported to the police and was told by the scammers “you f*** yourself and tell that other motherf***** to stop calling me,” according to the report.
The money paid to the scammers will not be reimbursed, the victim said.
“After all that, I felt like I did something wrong,” the victim said. “So I’m very frustrated”
Melville said she has spoken with representatives of the FBI, who said these scams are a nationwide problem and that the scammers are using Voiceover Internet Protocol telephone numbers, which are extremely difficult to trace.
The scammers are from foreign countries, Melville said, where the FBI does not have any jurisdiction to follow through with prosecution.
Melville said it is hard for international students who are new to the country to tell that the scammers are not American.
“They sound very Americanized and they use colloquialisms,” Melville said. “For a domestic student, to a trained ear, you can tell the difference, but international students can’t.”
Earlier this year a similar scam hit international students during tax season, when students were contacted by people posing as representatives from the IRS, she said
During that round of scams, another student was convinced to give the scammers thousands of dollars before realizing something was amiss, she said.
“They just kept calling back and saying ‘you owe more and more,’” Melville said. “This is a nationwide issue and a nationwide problem.”
The Global Education Office offers workshops to help international students integrate into American society, including ones that focus on legal issues and privacy protection, which feature speakers from the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security and representatives from the Albuquerque Police Department, she said.
GEO will be offering more of these workshops this spring.
“The thing we always tell students is that no government agency will require you to provide money sight unseen,” Melville said. “If somebody’s calling you and asking for something, don’t provide information over the telephone.”
In addition, GEO plans on including information on how to stay safe from scams and identity theft in the pre-arrival packet they send out to incoming international students, she said.
Because of the recent advances scammers have made using hacking and other modes to gain people’s personal information, Melville said it is important to contact students about these sorts of scams before they even reach the United States.
“This set of scams has been the scariest one, because the technology has become so advanced,” Melville said.
GEO can be reached at 277-4032, and should always be contacted if any international student feels they are being taken advantage of, she said.
“We’re always here to help anyone out,” Melville said. “If you think something’s wrong call us right away.”
Daniel Montaño is a staff reporter with the Daily Lobo. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @DailyLobo.