International students at risk for scams

Jeffery Duan was looking to sublease a room in his Urbana apartment this summer while he’s home in China. Instead, Duan ended up with a fradulent check, narrowly avoiding losing thousands of dollars to a scammer.

Duan, a graduate student, posted his room on the Chinese Students and Scholars Association’s, or CSSA, website, a resource many international students use to find apartments and to sublease spaces for summer. Duan found his current room on the CSSA’s forum.

“I wanted to rent my room to a Chinese student because they’ll be comfortable with my roommates,” Duan said.

A few days later, a woman claiming to be Julia Lee emailed Duan saying she was interested in subleasing his room. On Tuesday, Duan received a check supposedly sent from Lee’s company that would cover her living expenses. The check was addressed from the College of American Pathologists, or CAP, in Northfield, Ill. Stephen Myers, chief administrative and financial officer for CAP, said scammers use the CAP every so often.

“We’re not sure who it is and there’s not much we can do to stop them,” Myers said.

Wanlin Kong, president of CSSA and junior in LAS, said this is the third scam he has heard of through the CSSA website. Scammers seem to be targeting international students, he said.

“Most (international students) leave the country during vacations and need to sublease their apartments,” Kong said. “Their parents transfer $40,000 to $50,000 into their bank accounts per year for living expenses. (Scammers) target international students because they know they have a lot of cash in their accounts.”

The check was for $3,685 when Duan had only requested $1,000 for the three months. When Duan asked Lee why the check was for so much, she asked Duan to wire transfer the excess money to a person named Sun Lin in London. Lee said Lin would use that money to pay for travel expenses.

Duan became suspicious of the transaction and went to the Chase Bank in Urbana for advice from his banker. Duan said the banker determined that the check was fraudulent.

John Breyault, director of the National Consumer’s League, or NCL, Fraud Center, said this type of fraud is referred to as overpayment fraud, which falls under a broader umbrella of fake check scams. Breyault said these are the most common scams consumers report to the NCL — nearly 30 percent, according to the NCL Fraud Center’s 2011 report.

Breyault said once a person deposits a fake check in the bank, they often see that the money is available and mistakenly think the check has cleared. The money is actually a short-term interest free loan from the bank, he explained.

A person may then go through with wiring the excess money to the stranger, only to find out a week or so later that the check had not actually cleared. The bank will then go after the person who deposited the check to pay back the loan. But by then the money wired is in the hands of a stranger and usually cannot be recovered.

“I’ve heard stories of consumers having to sell cars, homes, etc., to pay back the bank,” Breyault said.

In retrospect, Duan said the first red flag came when Lee did not negotiate on the price. Duan was under the impression that Lee was Chinese, as the CSSA website is primarily written in Chinese and students primarily communicate in Chinese. However, when Duan tried to communicate with Lee, she would only respond in English, which Kong said is another red flag.

Duan said he wants to warn other international students about this type of fraud and hopes to catch the perpetrator.

“Julia Lee is taking advantage of international students like us,” Duan said. “We’re new to the U.S., we don’t know how checks function. Back in China, we don’t use checks at all, just credit cards and cash.”

Kong said warnings about this type of fraud are posted on the CSSA website. He said the CSSA can only do so much to warn students.

“We are all adults, we need to be careful of our own money,” Kong said.