College scam artists move online for identity theft, email address harvesting and bogus sales offers: Internet Scambusters #402

Back to School Means Beware of College Scam Tricks

College scam crimes escalate with the start of the new academic year.

Freshmen also face a bewildering array of hoaxes and urban legends to test their mettle.

This week, we update our earlier lists of student scams and highlight the most common campus hoaxes and urban legends.

Let’s check out today’s…

Learn A Lesson From These College Scam Tricks and Hoaxes

Although students are a key target for con artists at any time, the start of a new academic year always marks a college scam surge.

Without doubt, identity theft remains the number one student scam, and, whether you’re a student or a parent, there are lots of things you can do to cut the risk of falling victim to this crime.

It’s such a vast subject that we previously devoted several consecutive issues to our College Student’s Guide to Identity Theft, which is well worth checking out again.

In the time since the Guide was published, the use of social networking sites, especially Facebook, for phishing to collect personal details has grown immensely.

Again, you’ll find useful guidance on social networking and phishing scams in previous Scambusters issues.

The 5 Most Common Social Networking Scams

Phishing Scams: How You Can Protect Yourself

It turns out that Facebook now also hosts another sneaky college scam — part of a huge sweep to harvest email addresses for sending out spam.

In this college scam, crooks set up what appear to be legitimate profile pages for well-known colleges, targeting would-be students of future years.

For example, a profile might be labeled “(College Name) Class of 2012.”

It may even include the college’s logo and campus photos, inviting prospective students to become Facebook “friends” and provide contact details.

In another case, reported by the Toronto Star, a student who set up a similar but genuine site received a bribe offer to pass information to a supposed marketing company. He refused.

Once these phony outfits are identified, Facebook usually deletes their accounts, but the lesson here is to contact the college and make sure a site is genuinely theirs before “friending” it.

Another common trick for harvesting student email addresses uses the lure of a scholarship.

It’s cunningly simple. You apply for a scholarship promoted in the mail or online and must provide contact information.

The scholarship may be legit but the award is usually small — $250 or so — which goes to one student, while the promoter ends up with thousands of student email addresses.

You can find useful guidance on scholarship scams on the independent FinAid website, though, since we are not connected with it, we cannot vouch for its accuracy or advertisers.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) also offers a consumer alert on college financing.

Spammers already armed with student email addresses (which can be legitimately bought in marketing lists) use a variation of the phony identity trick mentioned above to pull off another college scam.

They use logos or blatantly lie to imply they’re somehow affiliated to a college to try to gain credibility for products they offer for sale.

Sometimes the products exist — but the sales technique is still wrong. Other times it’s a pure rip-off and students end up losing their money.

Potentially, if they use credit cards, their identities may also be stolen.

The old adage about not believing everything you read applies here.

Unless you signed up to receive email offers, unsolicited sales messages are spam. Just trash them.

Hoaxes and Urban Legends on Campus

In addition to the college scams mentioned here and in our earlier issues, students newly arrived on campus often encounter a whole series of strange stories supposedly linked to their college.

Some of them just make you smile, but others can be malicious or downright frightening.

In the latter category we include a spate of hoax alerts claiming there’s a gunman or prowler on the loose.

This one is especially common around Halloween.

Sometimes these have been compounded by hoax 911 calls, which bring in the police and the threat of a lockdown.

The trouble with these is that it’s difficult to know immediately whether or not they are true.

If it’s appropriate, a check with the college administration will probably put you straight. Otherwise, play it safe and avoid risky situations, even if it turns out the “joke” is on you.

Other “pranks” aimed at freshmen that fall into the broad category of student scams include bogus messages telling you a class or exam has been cancelled (check this with your professor), non-existent party or gig announcements (you need a reliable friend you can trust; whatever you do, don’t hand over money), and free food in the college cafeteria on a certain day (check it out anyway!).

You may also hear stories about gruesome initiation ceremonies. Most of these turn out to be hoaxes or urban legends from the past but sadly some of them are true.

They fall into the category known as “hazing.” Today this has been outlawed at most colleges and is a felony in some states. Check their policy before you go and, if necessary, seek guidance from the college authorities.

In the field of urban legends, you may hear tales like all your grades will be marked up if there’s a family tragedy or if a student you’re rooming with dies, a grisly murder took place in your dorm, or the college library is sinking under the weight of books.

These are the most common ones.

A particularly entertaining college urban legend, which seems to have come from the movie Slackers, tells of a student who hands in his examination paper late.

The examiner refuses to accept it. The student asks if the examiner knows who he is. When the examiner says “no,” the student adds his to the pile of completed papers, picks the whole lot up and throws them in the air, jumbling them up. Neat trick!

Check out more unlikely tales at the Scambusters Urban Legends and Hoaxes Resource Center.

We hope that last story put a smile on your face. Student life should be exciting, fulfilling and fun, but there’s bound to be an additional opportunity to put your IQ to the test — by spotting and side-stepping a college scam!

That’s all for today — we’ll see you next week.