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How to be Scam Smart: avoiding scams targeting international students

Sonder Safe   |   Sep 25, 2019 10:34:19 AM
Online internet credit card scam scammers targetting international students money fraud

Scams are nothing new, but over time they’ve become more and more sophisticated, making it tougher to tell the difference between a scam and a legitimate communication.  Unfortunately, international students are often a target for scammers. Sonder is encouraging international students to become more Scam Smart. 

Sonder's advice on how to be Scam Smart will help you;


  • Recognise if something is a scam
  • Be aware of the common scams targeting international students
  • Understand how to protect yourself from being scammed
  • Know what to do if you have been scammed

One of the ways scammers have become “smarter” in their attempts to cheat people out of money, bank account and personal identity details, is by targeting specific groups to make their communications appear more convincing.

Unfortunately, international students have been identified by Scamwatch as one of the groups being targeted by scammers. Students with little experience of Australian life can be preyed upon by scammers who use “weak spots”, like a lack of understanding regarding legal processes, or a high need to find work or accommodation, to trick people into handing over money or personal information.

Often, scams are conducted over the phone, but scammers may also make contact via e-mail, social media and instant messaging apps. Scammers may pose as being connected to a legitimate business, organisation or government department. A fraudulent advertisement or communication will often try to look or sound “official” in order to avoid suspicion. 

"Kidnapping Scams" - a recent, extreme example 

One of the latest and most serious examples of scams affecting students, mostly from China and Taiwan, has been dubbed “the parcel scam”, “virtual kidnapping scam” or “fake kidnapping” by Scamwatch and the Australian Federal Police (AFP).

According to the AFP, the scam first surfaced in Australia in 2018. Since then, police estimate 80 to 90 international students have been victims, and millions of dollars extorted from themselves and their families.  

In this particularly frightening example of a targeted scam, students are contacted by phone by someone claiming to be from a courier company like DHL, or an authority in China such as the police. The scammer tells potential victims that a parcel in their name had been intercepted containing illegal items such as multiple fake passports. In other instances, the scammer claims the victim’s bank account has been compromised and is being used for criminal activities. 

The scammer then goes on to solicit the victim for payment for “legal fees” or a “priority investigation” in order to clear their name and avoid deportation or imprisonment. In the “fake kidnapping” variation of this scam, if the victim fails to produce payment, the scammers attempt to coerce the students into taking photos and videos of themselves in staged “hostage situations”. These images are sent to their families back home with a message threatening harm to the student should they fail to release the ransom.

Most scams targeting foreign students aren’t as extreme as these so-called kidnapping scams, but they can still be stressful, scary and extremely costly experiences.

Fortunately, if you know the ‘warning signs’, most scams can be avoided.

So, what can you do to protect yourself from scams that take advantage of students who are far from home and feeling vulnerable or insecure?

Here is Sonder’s advice on how to be Scam Smart. 

Be aware of the most common scams affecting international students

Some of the types of scams most commonly reported by overseas students include: 

1 . Accommodation Scams

These scams typically involve someone posing as a landlord and contacting students requesting rental accommodation online. The scammer requests money for a bond or rent in advance and then disappears.  

2. Ticket Scams

Students can be fooled into thinking an e-mail or online advertisement for a deal on tickets (e.g. flights or concert tickets) comes from a legitimate agency, but the tickets never arrive or turn out to be fake.

3. Job Scams

 A scammer may pretend to be an employer, posting fake job ads or contacting students seeking work online. They may ask a person to share personal information or request a fee for something like ordering uniforms or training in order to “approve” your employment.

4. Ghostwriting Scams 

With these scams, the student pays for someone to write essays or other work for them, a term known as 'ghostwriting'.  Not only can this jeopardise a student's studies (it's considered to be a form of cheating), but students often receive nothing, are given extremely poor service and are refused refunds.

5. Social Media Scams

A scammer may hijack or copy the account of a person you know, or make friends with you through social media platforms before making a plea for money.

6. Blackmailing Scams

Some scams might try to scare you into paying money by accusing you of a crime or another wrongdoing in order to blackmail you. Even if you know you didn’t commit the crime, the scammer might use threats to frighten you into paying. The parcel or kidnapping scam mentioned above is one such example of a blackmailing scam. These types of scams may also involve the scammer requesting private information such as addresses, passport numbers and banking details. 

How to protect yourself from potential scams

  • Be suspicious of any communication requesting large sums of money or personal information such as passport details, credit card numbers or passwords.
  • Never send sensitive information like banking details via e-mail or instant messaging.
  • If someone approaches you claiming to represent an institution such as a university, the Australian government or another organisation, don’t commit to their requests straight away. Contact that institution directly, report what you’ve been told and ask them if they usually approach people in such a manner.
  • In reference to the recent kidnapping scams, the Australian Federal Police advise that the Chinese authorities will never contact individuals by phone requesting money in relation to a criminal investigation .
  • If someone contacts you regarding a job opportunity and asks for money in exchange for giving you the position, don’t give into their demands. Many scammers take advantage of international students’ eagerness or desperation to find work in Australia.
  • Similarly, accommodation scammers prey on students they know are desperate to find a place to live. Never hand over any money before you have inspected the property in-person and have signed a contract with the landlord.
  • Scammers can skim photos and personal details about you such as where you’re from, where you are studying and the names of people you know from social media sites.  Revealing that they “know” things about you does not mean the person has a legitimate reason to be in contact with you.
  • If you’re concerned, talk to your friends and fellow students about the issue. They are often the first to know about potential scams going around.

What to do if you think you've been scammed 

Remember anyone can be the victim of a scam. Don’t be ashamed to seek help if you think you’ve been tricked by a scammer.

If you suspect you’ve fallen for a scam, stop all communication with the person you’ve been talking to. Don’t respond to phone calls or follow prompts to call or message them back. If the person claims to be from a certain agency or company, look up the phone number of that organisation and talk to them directly. If you type the phone number into Google search, you can often find out whether anyone else has reported it as a scam number.

If you have provided bank account or bank security details to a scammer, report it to your bank or financial institution immediately.

Contact the police if you believe you are the victim of a serious fraudulent activity such as extortion, blackmail or identity crime. If you are ever threatened over the phone, hang up immediately and report it to the authorities. 

How Sonder can help you to stay Scam Smart 

Sonder’s professionally trained staff are here 24/7 to help with immediate advice and assistance if you ever think you have been, or are at risk of being scammed.

You should always contact police in any case where you receive direct threats (eg. threats of kidnapping, violence, arrest or deportation). If you're unsure or feeling a bit anxious about talking to the police, Sonder's support team are highly experienced with helping to facilitate communications between international students and police (for example, we can help should you be requested to file an official police report).

Unfortunately the police cannot intervene in all scam cases, especially if you voluntarily shared details with the scammer . In many instances, Sonder's Support Centre can assist you with other avenues for dealing with scammers, such as speaking to your bank regarding cancelling accounts to prevent further theft, and possibly recovering stolen funds. 

You can use our Swipe for Help feature any time to ask for advice about dealing with a potential scam.  If you are a Sonder member, connect to our support centre via the Sonder Australia app, and our team of multilingual experts will help you understand the situation.

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