Don’t Get Tricked
[ ◉¯] DC_Studio / Envato Elements
It’s been a stressful day. You’re nodding off on the bus when your phone pings. Startled, you read the message:
“NETFLIX REMINDER. Payment method on hold. Please confirm your billing information to avoid account cancellation.”
You’re in panic mode. I can’t let them cancel my Netflix!
There’s a link at the end of the message. Your finger hovers over it.
Spoiler alert: that text is a scam.
Scams Targeting International Students
Almost half of Canadians have fallen for scams. Nearly 2/3 of them are aged 18-34, which is the age of most university students. And international students are among the most vulnerable.
One common scam sees people impersonating Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC). They call international students, telling them that their visa is invalid or that there’s a warrant out for their arrest. In both cases, they ask for money, threatening arrest and deportation if the victim doesn’t pay.
In another example, 700 students from India received fraudulent acceptance letters to Canadian universities. When they arrived in Canada, they were told that these universities were full and they would have to study elsewhere.
After these students graduated and had worked in Canada for a few years, they applied for permanent residency. The Canadian Border Security Agency (CBSA) saw that the original acceptance letters were fake (which suggested that the students had fraudulently entered the country) and issued deportation notices this year.
On June 23, Canadian police arrested Brijesh Mishra, a Jalahandar-based immigration agent who had provided many of the fake acceptance letters. He is currently detained in Canada, facing five criminal charges.
A more recent scam appeared in Kingston, Ontario in September. International students are being contacted by people claiming to be police from their home country working with Canadian authorities. The students are told to send money to prove that they’re innocent of criminal activity. Several people have lost thousands of dollars as a result.
Besides these specific cases, there are multiple scams targeting both international and domestic students. We’ll be looking at two kinds in this article: scams directly sent to students (both through text messages/calls and through social media); and fake listings found on rental websites.
Social Media Scams
Let’s start with the basics. Who here has received texts about “prizes,” phone calls from “tech support,” or emails straight up asking for money? Probably everyone reading this article.
To give you an example, here’s an email I received in my Navigator inbox this September:
“Hi, I have very bad news for you. Unfortunately, your private data was compromised … [If] you don’t want those videos to be leaked, please follow the instructions. You pay $750 USD, and there will be nothing to worry about. No chats, no photos, nothing. Every single file will be deleted and virus removed from your machine … You have 2 days to make the transfer.”
Hopefully, most students would see this email, chuckle or roll their eyes, and immediately delete it. However, some people might panic and click on the link to make the transfer. If that happens, they’ll never see their money again. In some cases, the link will unleash a virus, which is especially destructive.
Sometimes, it’s easy to tell whether something is a scam. But other times, it’s more difficult.
Pankaj Jangir escaped a LinkedIn scam after coming to Canada last year for his MBA. He received a connection request from the representative of a finance company. After looking at their profile and the company website (which existed), he accepted the request.
To Jangir’s surprise, they asked for an interview. Despite finding the request unusual, he was interested and agreed to a Zoom video call a few days later.
Red flags soon appeared. Jangir found the company name on the BC Business Registry, but it wasn’t available on Canada’s Business Registries. He asked the interviewer for another registration name, but that one didn’t exist either. At this point, Jangir thought, “Okay, let’s play ball. Let’s see what they have.”
Next, he and the other interviewee were given math calculations to solve. That’s when Jangir knew it was a scam: “This was too fishy for me. How come they’re giving me training while they’re taking my interview?”
Then, the interviewer asked for Jangir’s social insurance number (SIN). Companies will ask for your SIN when you’ve been hired, but not during an interview.
Jangir left the call and immediately blocked the company.
This experience wasn’t Jangir’s first encounter with scams. He’d seen them while practicing law in India, once representing a client who’d lost 15 million rupees—close to $250k CAD. (The client was only able to recover 1 million, or $16k CAD.)
However, Jangir’s narrow escape showed him how elaborate scamming had become. He’s heard of other cases where international students have been catfished and blackmailed into sending money—an important issue that he says isn’t being discussed.
He also pointed out that, once people send overseas scammers money, the police are unable to get it back. And due to privacy laws, they can’t just enter people’s phones and stop them from clicking on links.
“If you click on these things, you don’t know how they will turn out,” Jangir said. “No one else can save you afterwards. If some damage is done, it’s done.”
Kush Sachdeva has also seen his fair share of scams and wants more students to become cyber aware.
Before coming to VIU to study for his BBA (International Business Major) and BA (Philosophy), Sachdeva advertised on Classifieds. One day, he received a message from a person who wanted to buy his Mac. Sachdeva checked the address the man had shared: it was a commercial building, not a residence.
To test his theory, Sachdeva sent a package to the address. When a few days had passed, he asked for his payment. The man told him he’d get it once the package arrived.
After a delay, the scammer received his parcel—of cow dung. Naturally, he was furious. “What have you done?” he asked.
Sachdeva was ruthless: “I didn’t get the money as promised, you didn’t get your stuff as promised.”
Since then, Sachdeva has received many scam texts and calls. Once, someone called claiming to be from Telus. Sachdeva started making outrageous demands: the newly released iPhone 17 Pro Max (doesn’t exist), 2000 gigs of Internet per week (not possible), and satellite coverage (not a thing). Each time, the caller said he could provide it.
Finally, Sachdeva spoke to the man in Hindi: “Stop doing this. This is insane. It’s two o’clock at night in the country and you’re [asking] for money? You don’t have any morals, any conscience?”
Sachdeva has watched many YouTube videos about scammers and scam busts. Most call centers are based in India and Bangladesh, which are linked to centers in the United States. They target people globally and at home. According to a July 2021 Microsoft survey, India has the highest number of fraud victims.
It’s important to remember, however, that scammers can be found in any country. We shouldn’t single out one particular demographic or country but focus on protecting everyone by making cyber awareness a priority.
While VIUSU has online campaigns for Cyber Security Month (October), there’s no physical event. Both Jangir and Sachdeva want more of an on-campus component, where people are reminded of scams so they don’t fall for them.
Sachdeva recommends watching “One call center, many scams” on youtube.
Video: Jim Browning
Our lives are moving online very quickly … When our information is moving online, it is very important to safeguard it.
— Kush Sachdeva
In an unhealthy rental environment, it can be difficult to find affordable housing. Naturally, there are plenty of rental scams.
VIU’s Off-Campus Housing Coordinator Michael Witcomb has had several students come to him about suspicious listings. He also heard from one student on the Mainland who lost several thousand dollars in a scam.
Witcomb created a fake scam advert for his Rent Wise course, which included vague promises (“close to shops and amenities”), a price below the current market average ($1000 for a whole house), and the landlord being out of town.
A week later, a Mexican student told Witcomb that they’d seen a listing that was eerily similar.
“I thought, ‘The likelihood that somebody will encounter more than one or two of these [characteristics] in any scam listing is not so high’ … [but] these things do exist here. It’s quite incredible,” Witcomb said.
About 75 percent of enquiries about rental scams come from international students. Witcomb is part of their pre-arrival orientation, hosting Zoom sessions about off-campus housing. He directs them to Places4Students, which so far hasn’t seen any scams (probably because landlords must pay a small fee to list their properties).
When looking at listings, students are encouraged to ask for additional proof or information, such as utility bills or a video tour of the property. Not everyone feels comfortable asking, and Witcomb understands that.
Witcomb’s fake scam advert.
Photo By: Sophia Wasylinko
People might feel that they’re disadvantaging themselves … But if you feel you’re in a more vulnerable group and you have the potential to be scammed, get educated. Ask the landlords one or two questions just to make sure you’re happy.
— Michael Witcomb
Sometimes, it’s an honest mistake, especially if landlords are from another province or new to Canada. For example, outside of BC, landlords can ask for first and last months’ rent as a deposit, whereas they can only ask for half a month’s rent here.
Witcomb hopes to have more Rent Wise sessions in the future, including for VIUSU staff and VIU Residences’ Community Leaders. In the meantime, his web page has several videos about renting and tenancy that students can watch. He also advises them to familiarize themselves with BC’s Residential Tenancy Act (RTA).
“Before you rent, just take a bit of time to get educated,” he said. “A lot of these problems can be avoided if people are armed with a bit of knowledge beforehand.”
Students who are currently renting and experiencing difficulties with their landlords should go to the Tenant Resource & Advisory Centre (TRAC) website.
How to Protect Yourself from Scams
It seems that every year, there’s a new scam—or an old scam that’s given new life. It’s easy for people to get tricked and, as our interviewees pointed out, there’s little anyone can do to catch scammers or get their money/personal data back.
But there are still ways that students can protect themselves.
If it’s too good to be true, it is. Don’t click on suspicious links or respond to unknown callers. If you see a scam listing, report it to the website’s host so they can take it down. Finally, reach out to counselors if you’re having a difficult time.
If you’ve sent someone money, contact the RCMP. The Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre has guidelines for reporting scammers. It’s usually too late to recover money, but if a case gets built up, the police can put out a warrant for the fraudster’s arrest.
Students can use apps like Jumbo and Lockdown to see if their email address has been involved in a data breach. iPhone users can also encrypt their email and passwords in iCloud Keychain.
Sachdeva always asks new contacts to text his number, so he can save it, before they call him. This safeguard reduces the risk of him taking a call from someone pretending to be that person.
If someone calls claiming to be from the bank, Sachdeva asks them to give him information that only they would know, like his last transaction amount (email and phone number excluded).
Sachdeva pointed out that scams usually happen when people are most vulnerable, so they need to be vigilant.
“If you have a long day and … you get a call, you’re most [susceptible], because you are drained. Your energy is gone. Try to reason, try to think, “Is it a scam? Can it be a scam?” he said.
Jangir warns students not to share any personal data on public forums, especially their SIN. He also suggests that they change their social media accounts to private settings. Most importantly, don’t click on links.
He also tells students not to feel discouraged if they fall for scams. “Nothing is foolproof … So don’t feel bad about it. It’s okay, life’s not ending.”
Scams can happen to anyone, anytime, anywhere. So as we get deeper into the semester, please take extra care. If you know what to look out for, you won’t get fooled. Stay safe, students!
Sophia is in her third year at The Navigator and fifth (final!) year of the Creative Writing and Journalism program. Outside of The Nav, she volunteers as a Peer Helper and is doing another year of Portal Magazine. This summer, a solo trip to Japan ignited Sophia’s wanderlust. She hopes to return soon, next time with a stop in Korea.