She probably wishes she never answered the phone that day.
It was 1 p.m. on a Friday, and she was sitting in her apartment in the West Village when her phone started ringing. Her “hello” was returned by a masculine voice on the other end. He said he was a federal officer. She believed him. But he was lying.
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The man told her that she owed $1,250 in student taxes. If she didn’t pay, he said they’d arrest her — that’s when the panic set in.
She hurried to a nearby bank, and put $1,000 on a Green Dot prepaid card. She remained on the phone with the man and read him the numbers off the back of the card. And just like that, the money was gone.
This story comes from a U Police report describing the case of an international student at the U (The Daily Utah Chronicle generally does not identify victims). The student was the target of a fraudulent phone scam happening at universities in the state and across the nation, including nearby Colorado State University and Montana State University.
Sgt. Garth Smith with U Police said beginning in October there have been a few more than five cases at the U, all targeting international students, but the rate is beginning to pick up.
“It’s become very frequent as of late,” he said. “Just in the last few months it’s been hitting pretty hard.”
The act is called “phone spoofing.” Scam callers change the ID numbers that register on people’s phones to look like an authority. Most duplicated the number of the federal IRS, but some have copied U Police’s phone number.
“With the spoofing of the phone numbers it makes it really hard,” Smith said. “It’s hard to get the lead on it.”
When students answer the phone, the caller claims to be an officer; they then ask for money and threaten the international students with deportation if they don’t comply. Smith said the callers typically ask students for $1,000 to $2,000 on pre-paid cards so they can’t be traced.
Smith said the fraud hit USU “really hard” during Fall Semester 2014. Steve Milne with the USU Police Department said his office would receive 25 to 30 calls a day of students reporting the scam “at the height of it.” The callers there followed a similar pattern, asking mainly for credit card information.
“It seems to rotate and float around to different universities,” Milne said. “Once word gets out that it’s a scam, they move on elsewhere.”
Smith said no specific nationalities or ethnicities are singled out as part of the scam, but that international students are more vulnerable because they may not know the laws or how the police operate here.
“We don’t call you saying you owe us money,” Smith said. “So when someone calls and threatens that, it’s kind of a big concern for [those students].”
He recommends that students hang up immediately if they receive a similar call and dial the police. U Police can be reached at (801) 585-2677.