Scams, Identity Theft & Digital Security
Scammers are people who commit fraud or participate in a dishonest scheme. They take advantage of individuals in vulnerable situations with the goal of stealing money or personal information. Unfortunately, scammers have a history of targeting international visitors to the U.S. in crimes that utilize the unfamiliarity of U.S. government agencies, language barriers, or fear of immigration status mistakes as leverage. Your most powerful tool in protecting yourself from scammers is education. See below for information, examples, and resources aimed at helping you stay one step ahead of the scammer. If you do become a target of a scam, do not hesitate to connect with OIS. We are here to help.
How to spot a scam Heading link
Online and identity scams have become so prevalent that you may feel numb to the attempts that seemingly never end. However, now that you are in a new country and culture, the attempts may appear unfamiliar and the nuances that identify them as fraud less obvious. Here are some reminders on how to spot a scam:
- Unexpected call, text, or email, especially from a U.S. government official or agency – Government agencies like the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) or U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services (USCIS) will rarely, if ever, initiate contact with you via phone, text, email, or social media. Legitimate information or updates regarding your U.S. tax responsibilities or immigration status in the U.S. will most likely come from OIS first and then by mail from the agency. If you are contacted by someone claiming to be a U.S. government official and you were not expecting it, they are probably a scammer.
- Threats and demands – If someone calls you claiming to be a police officer or a representative from a U.S. government agency and they threaten to deport you or cancel your immigration status, they are probably a scammer. Real immigration officials and police officers should not make you feel threatened or demand that you take action (like paying a fine or sharing personal information) immediately. If the caller does not want you to hang up or will not provide a call-back number, it is likely a scam.
- Wire transfers and gift cards – Another sure sign of a scam is that the caller or message asks you to send money, immediately, via wire transfer or through gift card numbers. Always get a second opinion before sending money or sharing personal bank information with an unknown person and know that U.S. government agencies will NEVER ask for payment by gift card (e.g. Apple gift card).
- Odd phone number or web address – Scammers can do a lot to make it look like you are being contacted by a legitimate person or agency. Pay attention to details like the country code, caller ID spelling, and web addresses. U.S. government web addresses typically end in .gov and school addresses end in .edu.
- Too good to be true – Phishing scams have been around for a long time, but you may find that you are a target for new types of phishing scams now that you are an international visitor in the U.S. Scammers may target you with a job offer or apartment listing when you need one most and are therefore more likely to click a link, share information, or do something you would not normally do, like send money. If something is unexpected and too good to be true, it is likely a scam.
Common scams targeting internationals Heading link
Here are examples of real scams that have targeted international students, scholars, and employees in the U.S.
An international scholar received a call from someone claiming to be from the U.S. Internal Revenue Service (IRS). The scammer explained that the IRS had reviewed their record and found unfiled tax returns and unpaid fees. If the scholar did not pay the fee immediately, their status in the U.S. would be canceled. The scammer demanded that the scholar wire money to a specific account while remaining on the phone.
An international student that recently arrived in the U.S. received a call from an individual claiming to be from U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services (USCIS). The caller told the student that their I-94 record was incomplete and that they needed to correct it immediately by providing personal information and paying a fine with an Apple gift card. When the student asked to call back after contacting their international student advisor, the scammer threatened to send a police officer to the student’s home.
An international student received an unexpected email offering them an easy, flexible job at a high hourly pay rate. The job entailed printing, packaging, and mailing marketing content for a company located in a different state. After responding to the email to express interest, the recruiter asked the student to send them their bank account details so that the company could wire money for the student to buy the supplies needed for the job. The next day, the student received $4,000 in their account, purchased the necessary supplies, and then wired the remaining $2,000 back to the company as instructed. A few days later, the student was contacted by their bank and told that the initial $4,000 wire transfer was fraudulent and that the student could not be reimbursed for the $2,000 spent on supplies or the $2,000 sent to the company, which was now not answering calls or emails.
An international employee was looking for an apartment in time for the arrival in Chicago of their partner and two children. After a few days of looking with no results, they found an online listing for the perfect apartment at a fantastic price. They contacted the landlord and were told that they could view the apartment tomorrow but that in order to hold it they had to pay a $500 non-refundable deposit immediately. The international paid the deposit, eager to secure this great apartment for their family. The next day, the landlord showed them a different unit that was not nearly as nice as the online listing. The landlord insisted that he had explained over the phone that the unit in the pictures was never available and the deposit was going toward a similar, if slightly less updated, unit. The international did not want to rent the new apartment but the landlord would not refund the deposit since it was “non-refundable.”
What to do if you become a target Heading link
If you do become the target of a scam, there are things you can do both in the moment and after the interaction to help yourself and others.
- Pause, breathe, and trust your gut – If you receive an unexpected call, text, or message that feels threatening, demanding, or otherwise upsetting, take a moment to step back and breathe. Slow down your actions and thinking so that you can observe the situation objectively. If it feels like a scam, it probably is.
- Never send money in the moment – If you do need to pay for something, you will be provided with multiple ways to do it and time. Do not send money or share financial information over the phone.
- Get a second opinion – Scammers want to isolate you and do not want you to bring anyone else into the interaction. Real U.S. government officials will not object to you taking time to seek advice from OIS or an immigration attorney. If you are unsure whether the contact is legitimate or not, ask for a case number and how to get back in touch with the official. Bring the information to OIS and we can help you sort it out.
- Report – Whether you fell victim to the scam or managed to avoid it, share your experience. Tell your friends, tell OIS, and report it to the U.S. Federal Trade Commission. The more we expose scammers and their tactics, the more we can protect others. If you are a victim of a scam, please contact OIS as soon as possible so that we can support you.