Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Fraudsters target Chinese students in UK visa scam

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Fraudsters are conning Chinese students out of tens of thousands of pounds just days after they arrive at universities in the UK.

At the start of August, a Nottingham University student had her laptop, containing identifying information and bank details, stolen at Heathrow airport.

A week later the student, who asked not to be identified for fear of retribution, received a phone call purporting to be from the Chinese embassy. She was told the embassy had received information from Chinese police alleging she was connected to a money-laundering case in China. “At that time, I was already panicked,” she said.

The caller encouraged her to co-operate with the investigation, and she was provided with a case number and transferred to what was claimed to be a Chinese police office.

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The scammers, acting as police officers, provided more details around the case, and gave the student a URL to a website claiming to belong to the Chinese prosecutor general’s office. The website contained details including the student’s national ID card number, and the photograph used on that ID card.

The student was told she would need to return to China and was threatened with imprisonment unless she made a videotaped statement via QQ, a Chinese social media platform. She did so after seeing a man dressed as a police officer via a video chat.

Related: U.K: School kids used as money mules to launder dirty money

“I thought it will ruin my life if I cannot tackle this case,” she said. “I was too scared to think of anything except crying because they told me at the beginning I can’t tell anyone, including parents, otherwise they will be implicated.”

“They believe if they don’t pay the money they won’t get their visa, or get their visa taken away”
The student transferred nearly £30,000 as “bail money” to the fraudsters, fearing she would be deported if she didn’t. It was only after talking to staff at the university that she realised it was a scam. Her parents reported the crime to police in China, and she reported it to UK police, although it was too late to recover the money.

“This is the darkest day I have ever experienced,” she wrote in a post on the Chinese social networking platform Weibo, designed to warn other students. She told the Observer that she had since been contacted by other Chinese students defrauded of money. At least three students have fallen foul of a similar scam at Newcastle University.

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A staff member at Into, a Brighton-based company that runs centres providing foundation courses for international students looking to study at universities in America and Britain, told the Observer: “We have had three instances this summer where students have answered the phone, given away their details, and lost their money.”

One student had lost £12,000. “These are significant amounts they are losing. They believe if they don’t pay the money they won’t get their visa, or get their visa taken away.” Into has sent an email to its students warning them about the scam.

The number of Chinese students studying at UK universities has reached record levels. Applications from China have increased 30% year on year, and now there are more students from China studying at UK universities than from Northern Ireland, according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency. Every year since 2012-13, more Chinese students have studied at UK institutions than students from all non-British EU countries combined.

An official at the Chinese Embassy said: “We are warning all Chinese students when they come to the UK. What makes us feel heartbroken is that there are always Chinese students who fall for it.”

The scam is a simple but powerful, experts say. “Social engineers prey on vulnerable victims that can be manipulated,” said Richard De Vere, a social engineering consultant, who is hired by companies to test their vulnerability to scams. “When they have focused their nefarious techniques on a wealthy foreign student the task has been made even easier and more rewarding than most.

Related: Irish Economic Crime Bureau to fight money laundering involving money mules

“Drilling down to their individual fears – being sent home to China a failure, being sent to prison, being ejected from the UK – would all be fears that would work to manipulate and gain the upper hand.”

A Nottingham University spokesperson called the scam appalling: “In addition to the serious financial implications for those students and their families, it overshadows what should be a happy and exciting time in their educational journey, and we are sorry that for some this has been their first experience of studying in the UK.

“We are doing everything we can to help all new and returning students to protect themselves against scammers and phishing.”

The university is offering information about the scam to all international students arriving on campus, and has already briefed everyone enrolled at its Centre for English Language Education.

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