Tufts students see rise in phishing incidents

Andrew Shiotani, director of the International Center called the issue 'widespread and pervasive.' International students are often victims of scams that take advantage an international students’ potential unfamiliarity with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and various immigration and policing policies. Evan Sayles / The Tufts Daily Archives

Multiple Tufts students have been victims of phishing scams this semester, and according to Andrew Shiotani, director of the International Center, international students are seeing a rise in phishing incidents. On a national scale, the scams have garnered the attention of the U.S. State Department and the Federal Trade Commision (FTC), and on the Tufts Medford/Somerville campus, they have warranted responses from administration and other departments.

International students are often victims of scams that take advantage of their potential unfamiliarity with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and various immigration and policing policies in the U.S., according to Christine Fitzgerald, manager for service marketing and communications at Tufts Technology Services (TTS). 

Shiotani echoed Fitzgerald, calling the issue “widespread and pervasive.” He explained in an interview with the Daily some of the tactics that scammers use against students.

“They have learned to manipulate caller ID so that their number is masked behind a government agency number, such as the IRS or Social Security Administration,” Shiotani said. “It seems like you’re getting a call from a legitimate government authority.”

One of the key factors contributing to the effectiveness of these scams is their emotional impact, partially driven by the false time constraints that scammers often impose on their victims, according to Fitzgerald.

“Criminals are very successful at using ‘social engineering’ to get the attention of potential victims,” Fitzgerald told the Daily in an email. “They also try to create an intense emotional response and sense of urgency that interferes with a person thinking clearly and recognizing that this is a scam.”

Shiotani expressed that scams targeting international students are pervasive and a frequent point of discussion in his profession.

“[International students] are particularly vulnerable because they are subject to complex rules and regulations; it’s not always clear what the obligations and requirements are,” Shiotani said. “That kind of info can be used to exploit the sense of vulnerability that they have.”

In order to protect themselves, he advised that students should proceed with confidence and contact the International Center in the case of a suspected scam.

Additionally, instances of “phishing”, a form of fraud in which the attacker masquerades as a reputable entity or person in an email or other communication channel, have merited the attention of the FTC, which released a notice regarding scammers impersonating employees of the Chinese Consulate.

These and other types of scams have elicited multiple university-wide emails from TTS addressing phishing attempts targeting the Tufts community.

Tufts has taken steps to mitigate the risk that phishing scams pose by educating students and faculty of their harms, according to Fitzgerald. She added that scams are often short-lived, as TTS will create filters to respond to scam and phishing attempts. 

Criminals are adept at avoiding these security measures, though, and often make their email and those of legitimate sources indistinguishable, Fitzgerald added. 

Scammers constantly change their techniques, and the ability of law enforcement agencies to catch scammers depends to a large extent on how quickly victims report such incidents, according to Kristen Setera, public affairs advisor at the FBI’s Boston division.

“Scams are constantly evolving as scammers become more sophisticated and the best way to avoid becoming a victim is to verify the authenticity of the request before sending any money,” Setera told the Daily in an email.

Setera added that in order to protect oneself from phishing scams, it is crucial not to respond to unsolicited calls and emails with personal information and to ensure that retailers and online stores are reputable before buying from them.

In addition to the university email spam filters, Shiotani and the International Center are working to educate international students about the threats posed by scammers. He said that it is essential for students to be aware of these risks, citing the frequency and variety of scams targeting international students.

Fitzgerald also provided a step-by-step approach to dealing with phishing attempts.

Tufts advises that the best way to combat these scams is to stop, breathe, and think when you detect an email or call is triggering your emotions,” Fitzgerald said. “If you still think it is real: You should reach out to your management or school administration to get advice/validate if this is real.”

She also encourages students to call the Tufts University Police Department or local police in these situations. That being said, scammers are quick to abandon their computers, which makes it difficult to trace the origins of a scam or phishing attempt.

She also elaborated on the difficulties law enforcement agencies face in apprehending these criminals.

“Most scams are run from countries that don’t have laws against these activities or that won’t support extradition,” Fitzgerald said. “This causes significant challenges in stopping the activities.”

Besides causing students to lose money, Shiotani expressed concern that phishing scams are undermining student trust in communication via email and over the phone. He illustrated this point by referencing a student who received a genuine Tufts fundraising appeal and thought that it was a scam.

“[Scamming] makes students question anything that they are being contacted about online,” he said.