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Online scams are phishing for students

We’ve all been susceptible to the odd scam here and there. While being charged £20 for a Week 10 POP! ticket seems like the worst of them all, students are increasingly falling victim to large money scams.

Students can often seem like the perfect target for scams. Most of us have been strapped for cash at some point, and when an email arrives in your mailbox saying you’re owed money it can suddenly feel like Christmas has come early. But the reality is we shouldn’t be so quick to fall for it. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

In research published by Nationwide in 2018, it was revealed that one in five young people have been hacked on social media, with 43% of those being unaware as to how it happened. As students, we often receive and accept various friend requests, assuming its a mutual friend or someone we must have bumped into on a night out that we just don’t remember. These requests can be dangerous to accept. Once a hacker has access to your account, they can easily find personal details that can be used to gain access to your other accounts. If you share information such as your address, your email, your phone number, or even important dates, such as your birth date, it doesn’t take much to guess your security codes and this information could end up being used to defraud you.

Arguably the most common and deceptive form of online fraud is phishing. When it comes to money, students can seem like the most gullible – being told we’re owed thousands seems like just the lifeline we need. Even though tax refunds and rebates occasionally occur when you have been unemployed for over a year whilst at university, it is unlikely that HM Revenue & Customs owes you tax. Scammers create emails similar to those of HMRC, often with minor spelling mistakes or capitalisations of letters such as ‘I’ used to imitate the letter ‘L’ – mistakes that you probably wouldn’t notice at first glance. The bogus emails detail that you may be due a tax refund or that HMRC ‘owe you money’ in attempts to gain your personal details and, more specifically, your bank details.

The tax authority has received thousands of fraud reports from students at universities across the UK, after the discovery that many have been receiving notice of a tax refund from a seemingly legitimate email address. These emails often include links to websites that perfectly duplicate the HMRC website but then continue to ask students for their bank details. HMRC have dedicated a section of their website to examples of HMRC related phishing emails and bogus contact, providing guidance as to how to spot a con and how to report such issues, while also urging that HMRC will never ask you to disclose personal information via email.

However, phishing emails are not solely unique to HMRC or the Student Loans Company but can emerge from a variety of websites. Scammers operate on the hope you have a connection with a company they are pretending to be and hope to reel you in under false pretences. One victim of an online scam recalls an incident where a company pretended it was an Apple service. The user received an email saying their Apple account had been compromised and purchases had been made using their details. They then preceded to call who they had been made to believe was Apple Support; the scammer then attempted to claim their bank details so as to remove them from the system. It was at this point the person knew they had been tricked as no legitimate company should ask for your details.

Between April 2014 and March 2018, 930 reports of university-related rental fraud, with £1,103,416 were made

Warwick University students have themselves been targeted by scams. In early 2018, Warwick’s Student Union published a university-wide alert, warning students to stay vigilant when house hunting. At the time, the SU advice centre had been notified of alarming reports regarding students who had been asked by a letting agent to pay huge sums of money in cash to secure a property for the next academic year. In some cases, the figure exceeded £20,000.

In an email later distributed to students across their respective subject departments, it was revealed that certain international students were the targets of such scams. The email provided further information on the letting agent, stating that students were being asked “for the whole year’s rent for accommodation starting in September 2018” even though “the students are not being given a proper contract, just being told they will secure a property in Cannon Park”.

At a time of extreme pressure, as the deadline for finding a house nears, students may rush to acquire a property and put down extortionate amounts of money without even questioning it. For a large majority of those in higher education, moving off-campus is their first experience of renting a house, and this lack of experience can make students immensely vulnerable to housing agents.

Fraudsters will often target college and university students ahead of the new term with fake lettings in local accommodation, taking advantage of the huge demand to collect fees up front to secure a deposit. Between April 2014 and March 2018, 930 reports of university-related rental fraud, with losses of £1,103,416, were made to Action Fraud. However, the true figure is dependent on victims making their student status known when reporting to Action Fraud. The number of reports peaked each year in September – a time when students are likely to be organising their accommodation for the next academic year. 61% of university rental fraud victims reported a significant impact on their health or financial wellbeing as a result of being defrauded.

When looking to rent, it is essential that you ensure you have done your research. Whether this is talking to other students who have experience with renting or even just making sure your other friends and course mates are facing the same types of charges, make sure to look out for when the numbers just don’t seem to add up. If something seems illegitimate or costlier than it should be, chances are it requires further investigation. While housing is undeniably expensive, you should not be facing impossible figures.

While some of these warnings seem blatantly obvious, people fall victim to this kind of thing more often than you might think. Scams can come in a variety of forms, as revealed by an article published by Huffington Post UK in May 2018. It explained how a ‘What’s your royal wedding guest name?’ quiz, which was circulated heavily on social media around the time of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding, was in fact a method of collecting people’s personal security information.

To create your fictional royal name, you needed one of your grandparents’ first names, your first pet’s name, and the name of the street you grew up on. These are all common security questions required to change a password or log in to a service and many people were openly posting this information on their social media accounts. So, while you may believe you won’t fall victim to scams, you never know what’s been set up to catch you out.

The scams, and those behind them, are getting smarter and more creative. Therefore, it is important that young people become more aware of how to avoid getting caught out and should know what to look for if something seems a little shady. Whether it’s an email that appears to come from a reliable source or even a friend request on social media, remember to always be cautious as one simple mistake could be cost you.

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