It was early September 2022 when a McMaster University student got a phone call from someone claiming to be a United Parcel Service (UPS) worker.
The supposed worker said a package from China was held by Chinese customs because it contained bank cards and passports linked to an international commerce scam.
Then, the worker handed the phone over to people claiming to be with Chinese police, who told the Hamilton student his bank card was used in the scam and he was facing charges.
For some 20 days, the student spoke via Skype with the people claiming to be police.
The student then received an offer — they would expedite his investigation and avoid arresting him if he paid the Chinese equivalent of $100,000.
So the student paid up.
Here’s the problem: There was no investigation, or UPS worker or Chinese police because it was all a scam, according to security reports obtained by CBC Hamilton through a freedom of information request.
It’s just one of the fraudulent schemes that the Hamilton Police Service (HPS) and McMaster University say students — especially first-year as well as international students — need to watch for as the school year begins in September.
For context, the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre has received 32,458 reports of frauds this year alone and says scammers have stolen roughly $283.5 million from Canadians.
Rob Hardy, acting staff sergeant of financial crimes with HPS, said there have been five “fake police”-type scams since 2021, three of which saw people give up money.
But there are other scams to watch for, he said.
Tuition discount scam cost student at least $5K
The McMaster security documents also reveal how one woman was conned out of at least $5,000 by a service claiming to offer discounts on tuition — and how this type of scam appears to have been a trend.
“This is the fourth incident, of this nature, to be reported to campus security,” reads the report.
In August 2022, the woman noticed an online ad on WeChat that was offering up to a 70 per cent discount on tuition fees.
The student reached out and agreed to have the company pay her fall tuition, giving the company her McMaster ID and password so the company could access her school accounts and make the payments.
She received confirmation from McMaster University that her tuition was paid. Hardy said that’s because the company uses credit cards to pay the tuition.
The security report says the student saw the confirmation and sent the company at least $5,000 in 10 instalments.
After sending the money, the company told the woman she had to delete all correspondence they had due to legal issues.
The woman complied, but she later realized the payments to the school didn’t go through.
“Now the student is out the money they gave, plus they still have to pay their tuition,” he said. “We still have an active investigation in regards to this.”
The security report says the type of scam itself isn’t new, but Hardy says it’s the first he’d seen it in Hamilton.
Other scams to watch for
Hardy said other scams to watch for include ones involving rental accommodations and textbooks.
Rental scams are generally when a fraudster lists a property online at a cheap cost and will make excuses for why you can’t see the property in person.
They’ll ask you to send first and last month’s rent in exchange for the key — but a key never arrives in time for move-in day.
“The victim goes to the property and it’s actually not even for rent. Someone is actually living there,” he said.
The textbook scam involves a scammer responding to an ad by a student to sell a textbook. They’ll ask for the seller’s banking information and send an amount of money that’s well over the price of the book.
Then, the scammer will claim to be buying books and ask the original student to keep the money for the book and e-transfer the rest of the money to another email addresses.
“What ends up happening is the cheque that was put into the student’s account wasn’t a valid cheque and now that student is out the value of the cheque,” Hardy said.
Gayleen Gray, McMaster’s associate vice-president and chief technology officer, said the school community is “bombarded” with phishing attempts, where scammers pretend to be officials and pressure people to respond and give away personal information.
She said successful phishing attempts could lead scammers to get access into school systems and set up a more nefarious attack.
How to avoid scams, what to do if you were conned
Hardy said that in many scams, money is sent internationally. International students should know Canadian police cannot accept money from people and never ask for it, he said.
He also said people shouldn’t act in haste, should do their research and shouldn’t give out banking information.
“We always tell people stop, look, listen. Scammers work on pressure. Stop for a minute, catch your breath, look at the situation,” he said.
“Is it realistic? Is it a real business plan for a company to pay all of your tuition and you pay them half of it? That doesn’t make sense, right?”
Hardy said people should also listen to their guts or people around them who may be skeptical.
“Most fraud victims or people who were almost fraud victims will tell you their inner voice told them this isn’t right,” he said.
People can also take time to look at the kinds of scams listed by the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre. McMaster also has a web page about scams.
Hardy said if McMaster students become victims to scams, they should contact school security and police.
“Something in that information you have may be the key to a bigger picture,” he said.
“Nobody wants to see you lost money except for the scammers.”