Every few months, someone thinks up a new way to scam international students.

It’s sad, but it’s true.

These scams are often designed specifically to target international students. In 2015 for example, fraudsters offering 10% discounts on university fees conned up to 6 students in Melbourne.

Scams can show up in places that you trust, as was the case when nearly 300 students were sold fake airline tickets by a user on a popular international student Facebook page. Most of the students were trying to fly back home to visit family.

Anyone can be fooled by a clever scam.  So how do you protect yourself when you’re away from home, speaking a foreign language and aren’t always sure what’s official and who’s trustworthy?

Insider Guides spoke to people with experience of scams targeting international students. Read on to know out what the most common types of scams are, the warning signs and how to protect yourself.

Agency Scams

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Most Australian universities or institutions rely on education agents to recruit students for them.

Agents are paid on commission – for every student recruited, they get a fee. Because the agents operate in different countries, it’s difficult for universities to monitor them.

This leaves students vulnerable.

Warning signs

A bad agent might:

  • Charge you large amounts to make an application.
  • Make a fraudulent application and then disappear.
  • Advise you to choose a particular university or institution because that university or institution pays the agent more.
  • Downplay the amount of English you will need to know to complete your degree.
  • Offer to give you fake documents like IELTS certificates or academic transcripts.
  • Misrepresent themselves as working directly for a particular university or institution.
  • Ask for money for services that universities will provide for free such as orientation or accommodation support.

A 2014 report, ‘The agent question’ examined data on agency scamming collected from students, institutions and agents themselves.  The report found that not all agents are bad, but there is difficulty in knowing how common scams are.  The same report found that students who use agents tend to be younger and have English as a second language, so it’s possible that some students don’t know that they’re being cheated.

The University of Melbourne’s International Student Union Office Bearer, Yu Kong Low told Insider Guides, “I’ve heard about agencies giving very poor terms and conditions, but…they’re technically legal”.

Agents can provide all kinds of services, and average costs vary significantly, making it hard to know what to expect.  About 25% of people who use agents pay nothing. 13% pay more than U.S. $5,000, with the average being U.S. $500.

The wide range of price and services make it very hard to know if you’re being treated unfairly.

How to protect yourself:

  • If you come across an agent who charges more than average, think about if it’s worth it to you and make sure you shop around before making a decision.
  • Be suspicious of anything that is non-refundable.
  • Find out what credentials are required by an agent operating in your country and ask to see them.
  • Ask the university or institution you are considering if they have agents who officially represent them in your country.
  • Find out what services your university or institution of interest offers for free.
  • Bring someone with you when you meet agents, like your parents.
  • Walk away if you are offered false documents. It will only cause you trouble in the long run.

Discount scams

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“People who are out to scam students can be extraordinarily sophisticated and clever in the way they do it,” says Elizabeth Capp, the Director of Students and Equity at The University of Melbourne.

“One of the things we’ve observed they do is recruit other students to the cause”.

Ms. Capp is referring to a 2015-2016 scam where students approached other students, offering fake discounts on university fees.

In some cases, students claimed to be ‘agents’ of the university or institution. In other situations it seems, this scam began with something smaller – the offering of 10% discounts on utility bills through online advertisements.

Yu Kong explains that the trick was, “they’d actually give you a discount”.

“Then the same people would say, ‘hey I can do that for university fees as well,’ which are obviously much larger than electricity or water bills and then they’d just run away with the money.”

This scheme had a lot of elements: fake online advertising, building a false sense of trust and recruiting real people (some of them actual students) in order to seem credible.

Ms. Capp says she never ceases to be amazed at the creativity of scammers. Online and off, there are some general things to watch out for:

Warning signs:

  • People or organisations offering surprisingly low prices or substantial discounts.
  • Lack of details. A fake organisation will probably not have very clear contact information or may be based overseas. They also may not have ‘fine print’ detail about terms and conditions or dispute resolution processes.
  • Inflexible payment options. Someone may insist that you make payments immediately, in full or only pay by electronic funds transfer or a wire service. They may not offer payment through a secure payment service such as PayPal or a credit card transaction.

How to protect yourself:

  • Be suspicious of anything involving large sums of money.
  • If you’re approached by anyone claiming to represent a university or institution, the Australian government or other organisations, make no commitments. Contact that institution directly and ask them if they usually approach people in that manner.
  • Stay connected with your friends and classmates. They will usually be the first people to hear about scams.
  • Stay engaged with your university or institution. Orientation programs can include educating you about likely scams. Your university or institution may also have a student union specifically for international students who can help you if you run into trouble.
  • Log onto Scamwatch.gov and read up on common types of scams.
  • Try to conduct business through reputable websites and organisations and steer away from forums and social media.
  • Remember, if it seems too good to be true, it usually is.

Accommodation Scams

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Rodrigo is a Communications student from Mexico.  He says that the most common type of scams he sees against international students relate to accommodation.

In his experience, “It all starts on Facebook, it all starts with people desperately looking for accommodation”.

When looking for a place to stay Rodrigo joined a Facebook group for Latinos in Australia, but says he encountered shameful behaviour from advertisers.

He say’s one advertiser asked him to send her a $700 bond before they had met in person, and also lied about the proximity of her home to Rodrigo’s university.

How to protect yourself:

  • Always inspect a property, if the landlord doesn’t let you, do not proceed.
  • Search the property online and find out where it is and if it suits your needs.
  • Ask about all the terms and conditions of your stay.
  • Try to look for accommodation through official channels and websites rather than through forums and social media.
  • Keep copies of all correspondence with the people you’re renting from.
  • Avoid paying by money transfer if you can.

Rodrigo also pointed out another issue that affected friends of his; exploitation and blackmail. He knows of someone who asked students staying with them to work, as well as pay for their accommodation. Students were expected to do the dishes and live under strict rules, like not being able to have visitors.

Rodrigo says that these conditions weren’t clear in the beginning, but that, “progressively it starts being bad once they are living in that place”.

If the students spoke up, the owner would then threaten to tell immigration that they had breached their 20-hour working limit while ‘working’ within the household.

“They get scared,” says Rodrigo.

This is an example of scams that try to use your fears and anxieties against you.  In a similar scheme, Ms. Capp says that several years ago, fake material was circulated telling students how they could get medical certificates that would get them special consideration for assessment.

“It was presented in such a way that it was clearly quite convincing to a number of students who simply didn’t know any better”.

These are very cruel types of scams that in the worst case, can wind up with a student being blackmailed.

Blackmailing

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Some scams try to involve you in wrongdoing, or just accuse you of wrong-doing in order to blackmail you.

For example, Curtin University in WA was forced to issue a warning to its students when a person on an essay chat forum attempted to blackmail an international student.

The student was sent advice and a ‘sample essay’ from this person, who then took personal information from the student’s social media accounts. The student was told to pay a large amount of money or else they would be reported for plagiarism.

How to protect yourself:

  • Never put any personal information online, such as your address or student number.
  • Do not respond to the scammers.
  • Only look for help on academic, health or immigration matters through official channels.
  • Don’t be tempted by illegal offers; it may work out very badly for you.

Of course, these aren’t all the scams that are out there, just some of the most common ones. It’s important always to keep an eye out, and double check anything seems too good to be true.

Where to go for help:

If you suspect something is a scam or that you have been scammed yourself, there are numerous things you can do.

  • You can report scams to the ACCC through Scamwatch.gov
  • If you think you’ve been scammed or are ever concerned for your personal safety, report the matter to your local police station straight away.
  • If you need help, most universities have free legal service and advice for international students and some can be anonymous if you want.
  • If you have been scammed academically or anywhere on your campus, you can also lodge official complaints through your university.
  • Above all, never be afraid to ask for help.  Universities or institutions can provide assistance to students who have been scammed, but they must know what has happened to be able to help you.

Update 21/04/16 – This article originally contained a comment, from an interviewee, about flatmates.com.au. This comment has been removed due to the efforts of the company to combat fraudulent activity in the industry. They also produce a series of legal guides to assist throughout the rental process.