Advice on avoiding scams

Sometimes criminals target students to try and steal their personal information. They may pretend to be the government, banks, the university, police, or another trusted organisation to create a false sense of security and generate feelings of worry and fear when they contact you about important matters. Their ultimate goal is to take your money.

Remember if you are scammed it’s not your fault. Criminals use sophisticated methods to target people. Read the information below so you’re more aware of scams and how you may be approached.

What is a scam?

A scam is designed to deceive you, to take your money or some personal information. The criminal, scammer, or fraudster will aim to put you in a vulnerable position and take advantage of you by applying pressure and threats.

Scams can appear in a multitude of different ways. Scammers can contact you via email (“phishing”), websites, post or through your phone by sending you text messages, phone calls and through your social media accounts.

There can be some telltale signs to suggest an interaction is a scam. Most criminals will attempt to make the scam look legitimate so sometimes it can be hard to identify.

  • You may be contacted out of the blue.
  • If the deal sounds too good to be true, it often is! They may claim you have won a prize or even the lottery but then you can be asked to provide more information or bank details so be cautious.
  • They may seem cunning and clever, but they will sometimes make spelling and grammatical mistakes so make sure you pay close attention to the messages you receive.
  • To try and lure you into a false sense of security, they may provide some generic information about you to encourage you to trust them and deceive you about their legitimacy. These criminals are good at getting access to lots of different pieces of information.
  • Scammers will often attempt to pressure you into making an immediate decision by applying pressure. This can cause you to ignore some of the main signs that someone is trying to scam you.

Types of scams

In some situations, such as with taxes, they will attempt to take advantage of student’s gaps in knowledge. Similarly, essay mills will try and encourage you to spend money to receive a ‘plagiarism-free’ essays or assignments. This can result in serious academic consequences when you’re caught. For international students, fraudsters may even threaten you with deportation from the UK or cancellation of visas unless you provide personal or financial information.

Read through the sections below to find out more about different types of scam and how you can avoid them.

Phishing

  • Generally, if an email looks suspicious, it’s likely that it is. There can also often be grammatical errors, odd wording, poor quality images or technical errors.  Test your knowledge of the signs of phishing by taking Google’s online quiz.
  • Usually, phishing tries to make you trust the email by pretending to be from a large and reliable organisation like the police or even IT Services. They will also try to make you panic by warning you that something bad will happen if you don’t act immediately.
  • If the email asks you to do something odd or unexpected, like click on a link which leads to an unusual website, urgently look at a document or send money, stay calm, take some time to think about the contents of the email and seek advice from the IT Team. We also recommend reporting anything suspicious to 7726 or report@phishing.gov.uk, the Government’s reporting service which will take the spam down.
  • You can also check if the email it is from is genuine by searching for it online. 

Tuition Fee and Student Loans

  • These scams aim to create the impression that there are issues with your student loan or can target international students by offering discounts or exceptional currency exchange rates.
  • Criminals may pretend to be the government or even university staff members when they contact you. They are often trying to get access to your sensitive information.
  • An official organisation would never ask you to pay tuition fees over the phone so don’t provide any personal information if someone attempts to contact you this way.
  • You should always use the official university and government websites to pay your fees in full, with your own money and bank accounts.
  • Contact the Finance department if you need to check the status of your fees.

Imitating official organisations such as the Home Office, government officials, law enforcement such as the police, or National Insurance (NI) Administrators

  • The fraudsters will be looking to take some of your personal details, may ask you to move money to ‘safe accounts’ or demand a ‘fine’ be paid to prevent further action such as more fines, deportation (of you or your family) or being put in prison.
  • Their contact details or information may be very similar to or an imitation of the official organisations, even when the person you are communicating with proves their identity with ‘official’ identification, continue to be cautious and ask for a phone number to ring them back on and end the call.
  • One of the tell-tale signs of a visa scam is receiving a text message from an unknown number. These will often ask you for personal information such as your address, email address and bank details. Legitimate visa providers will already know such information when you started your visa process.

Money Mule

  • Criminals will attempt to use students to ‘clean’ their money. By offering students cash to put money into their bank account and then transfer it elsewhere, criminals can break the connection between the money and any criminal activity.
  • Students become a money mule in this instance and become implicated in a financial crime.
  • To avoid these situations, pay your fees yourself and do not make payments via a third party. Never allow anyone else to use your bank account. 

Job Scams

  • Most commonly, these will involve scammers posting adverts or contacting students with unrealistic job opportunities.
  • Don’t sign up to any opportunities, such as jobs, without undertaking proper research.
  • If you are asked to make any upfront payments or they do not have a physical address, this could be a scam. Proceed with caution and treat them with suspicion. If you think you are being scammed, stop all communications, and report the group.

Rental or Accommodation Fraud

  • Sometimes tenants can be tricked into paying an upfront fee for rental properties that don’t actually exist, are already being rented out or are rented to multiple other people at the same time.
  • These fraudsters are targeting students because they know that finding affordable housing and accommodation can be tough.
  • Always to make sure to check out the property in person, ensure there are screening processes for you as a tenant and sign a lease agreement.
  • If the price seems too good to be true, it probably is.
  • Additionally, be wary of any phone calls asking you to pay money for your accommodation. This may be from people imitating the University of Birmingham, landlords or rental agencies. These organisations wouldn’t ever ask for money over the phone like this. 
  • Community Living is a service available to offer you support, as a student, when navigating the world of renting accommodation. They understand it's better to be safe than sorry so there's plenty of support available, including helping you find a reliable house to rent and contract checking.

Ticket Fraud

  • Criminals will often take advantage of students who are big fans of major sporting events, gigs and festivals.
  • To avoid getting scammed when buying tickets to big events, make sure the website is secure by looking out for the padlock symbol in the browser window, the website address begins with ‘https’ (the ‘s’ stands for secure) and use official websites rather than links from social media.
  • Fraudulent websites can often look almost identical to the real thing so do plenty of research before making a purchase online. Look out for spelling and grammatical mistakes, low quality imagery and incorrect addresses or phone numbers.

Gift Cards

  • Some scammers send emails from various accounts claiming to be from known people, colleagues, or peers. They aim to trick you into buying vouchers and gift cards for them and claim that they will send you back the money.
  • These frauds aim to get you to act without thinking and make the situation seem urgent.
  • If you suspect that an email is a scam, the best route to take it to delete the message before clicking on or opening anything. 

Blackmail - including explicit images

  • Some of these scams can often fall under the label of ‘sex-tortion’ as they blackmail based on explicit or pornographic images and videos.
  • 'Sex-tortion' involves the threatening of a person to publish sexual information, photos or videos of someone, usually themselves, to extort money or force a victim to do something against their will. 
  • For many students, they can be targeted through dating apps and social media where criminals can use fake profiles. These are professional scammers and they know how to gain your trust and develop a relationship. 
  • The exchange of intimate images or videos always has potential risks and we recommend avoiding sending them at all. If you decide to, ensure you do it only when you are completely sure. 
  • In other instances, blackmail messages are often sent in a widespread and indirect way but will include a piece of personal information to make you feel specifically targeted.
  • If you feel you are being threatened, remember these criminals are experts in manipulation and cohersion so it's not your fault.
  • It's important you seek help with someone you trust, do not send over any money, block their contacts and do not engage with them. Instantly report them to the police and contact the Community Safety Hub on campus. You may want to take screenshots and save the messages beforehand as evidence when filling out the reports. 

What can you do to protect yourself?

Make sure that you use official channels that you have checked, e.g. websites and phone numbers, to contact bodies like the university or government organisations.

Don’t click on any suspicious links or download attachments from unknown emails or messages. If you are contacted to sign in via a link, for example the criminal is pretending to be a bank, sign in through the website you have searched for via your internet browser, rather than with the link.

If you receive a phone call and believe you are being scammed, ask for a number to call them back on and hang up. We'd then recommend searching for the number online for the organisation they claimed to be calling from to check the legitimacy of the call. 

Be careful about who you share personal information with and what you share online on places like social media. Cyber criminals can easily collect information about you from various social media platforms and use it against you, by opening credit cards in your name or getting access to more of your personal information.

We recommend only sharing your personal information with secure sites. These show a locked padlock or unbroken key in your browser and have ‘https//’ in their URL. For extra protection, you may want to use aliases. It’s also best to use reputable web browsers like Chrome and Firefox while browsing in the UK, as these have filters that can detect fake websites.

In cases where upfront fees are requested in exchanges for jobs, prizes, or opportunities, be sceptical and don’t give away your payment details without seeking advice.

Use strong passwords. Passwords should be unique, and we recommend that they are more than 16 characters (including a mixture of capital letters, numbers, and special characters). Avoid using personal information like birthdays or names of family and friends (including pets). A password manager app is a great way to stay on top of your passwords. Try to avoid using the same password for more than one website: if one gets compromised, they all will.

Keep your devices updated as software updates will often contain essential fixes to any security weaknesses.

Back up your data. This way, if your device gets lost, stolen, damaged or infected by any malware, your work and information is still safe. We recommend that you save three copies of your important data in two different locations. One of these locations should be in the cloud such as your University Microsoft OneDrive account.

What should I do if I think I am being scammed?

Don’t panic, stay calm and don’t give any more information out about yourself. Try to check whether the message is genuine by looking for signs that it may be trying to mislead you. If you believe it is a scam, don’t engage with the communication. Delete the email or hang up the phone.

Report the activity as soon as possible. If you have given away any bank details, get in touch with your bank’s fraud team as soon as possible. You should also report the occurrence to the police. The BBC provide an in-depth and detailed website with some helpful places to report specific scams to. Finally, report the incident to the Community Safety Team located in the North Lodge at the top of the Green Heart as soon as possible. They can help you figure out next steps and guide you through the reporting process if you’re unsure.

Further Information

If you want more information, you can go to the Home Office website. We also have plenty of resources available at the university to provide support. If you’re ever suspicious of any communications you have received, reach out to the Community Safety Hub or the IT Team for guidance and information.

If you have been scammed and need support, please contact your School’s Welfare Officer, or Mental Health & Wellbeing Services with your queries.

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