10 Scams Aimed at University Students and How to Avoid Them
Students as a group are particularly vulnerable to many kinds of scam.
When you go to university, you might well be living away from home and managing your own bills and budgeting for the first time. You might not know that many people locally, at least until you start to get to know your fellow students and make friends. Someone with ready cash from their student loan who’s inexperienced in handling finances and doesn’t have a support network to double-check things with is a scammer’s ideal target, and that’s exactly the position that many new students are in.
Some scams are new; others are variations on tricks have have been worked for decades. What they have in common is that they are all avoidable if you know what to look out for and make sure you use your common sense. Above all, beware of anything that looks too good to be true, as that’s how many scams will appear.
1. Fake emails from the Student Loans Company
The classic scam email targeted specifically at students is sending emails that purport to be from the Student Loans Company, but that are in fact nothing of the sort. Scammers will try to panic you, for instance by sending emails that suggest your account has been suspended and you need to email back your bank details or other identifying information urgently in order to receive your loan payments.
If you receive an email and you’re not sure if it’s legitimate or not, stay calm and investigate it carefully. If it asks for personal or financial information to be sent by email, you can safely ignore it, no matter how convincing it looks; only scammers will ask you to send sensitive information by email. Look out also for lack of identifying information, such as saying “Dear Student” rather than including your name. Poor spelling and grammar similarly indicates a scam. It’s worth keeping an eye on the information on the Student Loans Company website and double-checking it if you receive an email that makes you suspicious.
2. Fake grants and bursaries
Categorise this under “too good to be true” – if you’ve received an email that claims to be from your university, saying you’ve qualified for a grant or bursary that you know you didn’t apply for, be very sceptical indeed. The next step is likely to be someone asking you for your bank details so that the grant or bursary can be paid into your account, and then that information can be used to steal from you.
As above, exercise usual caution with such an email. You probably have other official emails from your university: do the email addresses match? How about the design and layout of the email? And there are the same questions about spelling and grammar to look out for: if you’re a student of Queens’ College, University of Cambridge, and you receive an email from Queen’s College Cambrigde, you can see that something’s amiss. Be kind to your fellow students and report any such emails to college authorities, so that other students can be on their guard.
One of the more heartbreaking scams targeted at students goes something like this. You’re in your final year of school, and you get talking to someone on social media or perhaps a student forum. Maybe they have an attractive profile photo; certainly they’re a sympathetic ear at a time of considerable stress. You befriend them, and perhaps even begin a romantic relationship with them, all in the virtual realm. There are always good reasons why you can’t Skype or meet in real life. And eventually they explain that they’re in financial difficulties, and could you perhaps send them some money?
From a distance, this age-old scam is obvious, but scammers doing this are careful about who they choose. Students who are stressed out with A-levels and going to university, who are far away from their support network and whose friends may have too many of the same stresses in their own life to be the listening ear that they need, are the perfect target. Be wary of online friends who are reluctant to Skype or make phone calls.
4. Phony landlords
Some perfectly legitimate landlords and letting agencies can leave you feeling ripped-off, with high administrative fees and deposits. But phony landlords go one step further. Overseas students, who may have to find accommodation without being able to view properties, are a key target. Phony landlords put up adverts for houses or apartments that either don’t exist or aren’t theirs to rent, require deposit money or other fees to be sent to them, and then disappear, leaving the student out of pocket and without anywhere to stay.
The best way to avoid these kinds of scams is to rent only through reputable landlords and letting agencies, and if at all possible, to view your prospective house or flat before you put down a deposit on it. Aside from ensuring that the flat exists and that the person allegedly renting it does have keys to it, this also avoids any other nasty surprises, such as a flat that is much smaller than the photographs make it seem. When you do find a flat to rent, make sure that your deposit has been put into a recognised tenancy deposit protection scheme, which your landlord is legally required to do in most cases.
5. Fake freshers’ events
Falling for this scam might only cost you five or ten pounds, but it’s still annoying. When you’re newly arrived at your university, looking for an event to go to with the people you’ve just made friends with, you might well find yourself being approached by people selling tickets for different things, such as society events, student union parties and clubs among others. The scammer hides among all the legitimate events, sells their tickets to an event that doesn’t exist, and is long gone by the time you get to the venue and realise it’s fake.
For once, this isn’t really a scam that you can spot through amateurishness; lots of legitimate student societies will have photocopied tickets with typos on them. If you’ve heard about this kind of scam occurring at your university, google the relevant event before you buy a ticket for it – you’ll be able to find out quickly enough if the venue doesn’t exist, or if there’s no indication that the event is happening there.
6. Money laundering
If someone asked you to look after a large amount of money for them, take a cut and then transfer it into another account, you’d almost certainly be suspicious. But what if it was framed as a job, with a convincing-sounding title like ‘payment processing agent’? This is called the money mule scam. At worst, students caught by this scam, who are lured in by the prospect of easy money, will provide their bank details to fraudsters only to have their savings stolen. But even at best, with the scammer doing only what they promised – letting the student take a small cut of a large amount of cash in exchange for transferring it through their account – the ‘money mule’ is taking part in money laundering, which can lead to up to ten years in prison.
A variation on this scam involves being befriended by a scammer, also posing as a student, who claims to be unable to access their loan through their own bank account. They ask you if they can transfer it into yours, and you can then transfer it on. In doing what you think is a favour for a friend, you might instead be laundering money for a criminal.
7. Fake jobs
Money laundering is just one form of fake job scam targeted at students. Another is adverts for jobs that don’t actually exist. The scam is as follows: you see an advert for a great-sounding job. You apply, putting a lot of time into your covering letter and CV. The employer loves your application so much that they don’t even want to interview – they just want to get you started in the job right away. The only thing that’s needed before you start is to pay a £200 administration fee, and £300 for a Disclosure and Barring Service Check (a legitimate check, but which should typically cost no more than £75). If you pay up, there will be more bogus fees to follow. If you don’t, the only contact line will be a premium-rate number to fleece even more from you.
As a rule, you should be wary of any job that wants you to start right away without even an interview or trial shift. Fake jobs are likely to be for companies you’ve never heard of, with unconvincing email addresses – very few businesses will operate from a hotmail account. And any company that really wants to hire you won’t make you pay for the privilege.
8. Pyramid schemes
Yet another classic job scam that’s often targeted at students is a pyramid scheme. The concept of a pyramid scheme is very simple. You begin with a single person – the scammer. They offer an investment model where you pay them a fixed amount, say £100, and they will pay you the same amount for every person that you persuade to invest in the same way. But there’s no actual mechanism for making money; the money flows into the pyramid solely through more people being recruited into it. You only make your money back if you get more people involved, and they, in turn, only get their money back if they do the same. The vast majority of people in a pyramid scheme, at the bottom, end up losing their money.
This sounds easy to spot, but pyramid schemes are often disguised as something else. For instance, you might be offered a job selling makeup, where you pay for your initial makeup to sell, and are encouraged to recruit more sellers. It’s still a classic pyramid scheme, but having a product (which is usually worthless) makes it seem legitimate. If you’re offered a job that involves a financial outlay to stock up on a product and there’s a recruitment aspect, look very carefully at how it’s structured before putting any money into it.
9. Free trials that aren’t free
A free trial scam – or subscription trap, as they’re sometimes known – is based on a principle that you’ve probably seen before. You enter your bank details in order to sign up for a free trial, which could be for anything from software to muscle growth supplements, perhaps with the offer that for the trial period, you only need to pay for postage and packaging. Some companies will sign you up in the hope that you’ll forget to cancel the trial, which is dodgy but not illegal.
Where this becomes a scam is when the statement that you’ll be charged unless you cancel is buried deep in small print where few people would ever think to look. Furthermore, when you do try to cancel, getting to touch with the company will be very expensive (more premium-rate phone lines) and time-consuming (they might leave you on hold in the hope that you’ll give up). In some cases, the company will simply be impossible to contact. If you’re signing up for any kind of free trial, always read the terms and conditions first.
10. Cash machine tampering
Cash machine tampering can affect anyone, but students are particularly vulnerable, as they’re likely to be taking out smaller amounts of money from cash machines in different locations, and seldom going into a bank. This can be a sophisticated scam, with technology planted on the ATM to skim your card or copy your PIN, or it could be as simple as a stranger loitering behind you to read your PIN over your shoulder, ahead of snatching your bag or picking your pocket later on.
The first step to avoiding this scam is always to cover your PIN when you’re entering it, and not to use a cash machine if there’s someone hovering too close. Beyond that, keep an eye out for anything that looks wrong with the machine – whether the plastic on it seems loose, the keypad spongy, the card slot oversized or seemingly blocked. If you’re worried, use a different ATM and prioritise your safety.
Images: student loan application form; fake cheque; girl with pink laptop; scary landlord; fresher’s party; money hanging on washing line; paying money to fake employer; pyramid scheme; free trial button; cash machine; university student with books; fresher’s week festival