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Edmonton international student warns others after losing $11K to phone scammers

A Concordia University of Edmonton student who recently lost nearly $11,000 to phone scammers says universities should better educate international students about common scams in Canada. 

Parisa Ghanbari, a 27-year-old master’s student who arrived in Edmonton from Iran this fall, received a phone call on Oct. 20 from a caller who said someone had been using her Amazon account to buy electronics and open bank accounts in different countries. 

Ghanbari doesn’t buy products on Amazon, but when the caller said her name was on a list of criminals, she feared being deported.

The caller told her to act immediately to clear her name, and within a few minutes, she received a call from someone else, who identified himself as a government agent. She quickly looked up the caller online and found an official-looking website (that has since been deleted) with his name and phone number.

Over the phone, the scammer pressured her to make two cash withdrawals from her bank account and deposit the money — ostensibly to verify and protect it — into a bitcoin ATM at a downtown store. The caller urged her not to talk with anyone about the transactions because she could not trust them to keep her information safe.

“I know it doesn’t make sense, but at that time, I was so scared that I could believe anything because, to be honest, I don’t know how things work in this country,” she told CBC News Wednesday.

After she made the deposits, the caller kept her on the phone for several minutes, assuring her that everything was OK and she would soon receive her money back.

A bitcoin ATM sign warns that users could be fraud targets.
Parisa Ghanbari used this ATM on Oct. 20. A sign on the machine warns that the CRA and RCMP don’t demand payment through bitcoin. (Scott Neufeld/CBC)

A few hours later, after discussing the incident with her roommate, she realized she had been scammed out of $10,900, which was supposed to be for her second semester’s tuition.

Ghanbari recognizes all the red flags in hindsight, and even during the interactions, she suspected something was wrong, crying in the store as she scanned QR codes — but she said fear kept her from speaking out. She was also worried the call had been related to a string of threatening text messages she had received recently.

Though she was familiar with some types of scams, like phishing links, she said she had never heard of scammers purporting to be government agents and had never seen a bitcoin ATM.

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Scams 101

Ghanbari reported the scam to police, who said nothing could be done because she deposited the money and the scammers were outside the country.

She also reported the scam to Concordia. She said the school told her about possible scholarships, gave an extension for paying her tuition and sent out a scam warning email to students. She launched a crowdfunding campaign on GoFundMe and fears she might not be able to continue her degree.

As an international student unfamiliar with systems in Canada, Ghanbari said she felt targeted by scammers and she said universities should educate students about their tactics. 

“They should tell students about this — at least send an email and tell students about all the ways they can be scammed,” she said.

Navleen Kaur, president of the Concordia Students’ Association, said she supports adding scam education to new student orientation programs but there should also be more frequent reminders via email and social media. 

“As a student, it’s always hard when things happen all of a sudden and you don’t remember those resources that you were told four years back at orientation,” she said. 

She said in response to this incident, the CSA plans to start warning students more frequently about scams.

Kaur, who is a fourth-year international student, said she herself received suspicious phone calls and learned they were scams after reaching out to Concordia. 

She said scams similar to the one Ghanbari experienced, involving fake government agents and immigration status threats, have also affected her friends.

A spokesperson for Concordia said the school tells international students to keep personal information confidential and has increased communication about how to protect themselves in a variety of situations.

The school says it supports victims with tuition payment plans, budgeting support and access to free counselling and career services.

What to watch out for

Fraudulent activity is difficult to track, but statistics from the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre suggest it is increasing. 

Last year, the centre received more than 100,000 fraud reports — an increase of 130 per cent since the previous year. 

From January until the end of September this year, more than 43,000 victims lost $362.7 million to fraud.

“We know that it’s going up in large numbers,” said Jason Zirkle, training director at the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners in Austin, Texas.

Zirkle said people don’t need to be aware of every type of phone or impersonation scam, but they should be alert to the common elements: urgent requests for money or personal information.

“That’s when the red flags should start in your head, so anything that we can do to make people aware of those facts is going to help protect those people from fraud,” he said.

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