Imagine that a student receives a call from someone claiming to be a representative of their college, who explains that the financial office hasn’t received the student’s tuition payment. This person knows the student’s full name, age, specific school within the university and the department in which they’re working toward their major. The person says that the student will be dropped from their classes unless they provide payment information immediately, over the phone.
This is just one example of how scammers may target students who are learning how to manage their money and other new responsibilities. Due to the scale of change that many students go through while attending college, criminal actors often see an opportunity to exploit them by using “social engineering” methods, which combine publicly available information and psychological manipulation to coerce people into providing money, information or both.
Scammers may use the phone, online or print ads, or social media to reach out to students with attractive deals on goods or services, or to make fake demands for payment. Sometimes many people will receive the same phony offer. But as people post more details of their personal lives online, criminals are increasingly able to focus on specific individuals using highly targeted social engineering tactics.
Students can protect themselves from scams by staying vigilant about what they share about themselves and people they know online. Here are a few scams to keep watch for, and ways to avoid falling for them.
Common social engineering scams targeting students
Scammers are always on the lookout for new opportunities to steal your personal and financial information. The following scams are commonly reported, and criminals are continuously creating new variations:
- Fake listings for apartments, used books, movers or other services. These scams start with an ad that offers housing, supplies or services students often need — at an attractively low price. Once a target sends a partial or full payment, what was initially promised either doesn’t arrive or is unavailable or nonexistent.
- Student loan debt relief scams. Representatives from private debt relief companies may contact students with promises to reduce or eliminate their student debt for a fee. While some of these companies are legitimate, many are scams, and most will use pressure tactics — such as limited-time offers — to get students to sign up.
- Fake employment offers. An online or print ad may describe a job that is a great fit for students’ schedules and pays well. But when students contact the “employer,” they may be asked to pay a fee or to provide personal or financial information to complete the application process.
- Unsolicited scholarships and grants. Students might receive a phone call or email from an organization they don’t know. The representative tells the person they’ve received a grant or scholarship and asks them to supply information — such as their Social Security number or bank account — to confirm they are the correct recipient.
- Social media scams. Social media platforms are often filled with details about where people live, who they know and what groups they’ve joined. Criminals can collect this information and reach out to students, pretending to be people with similar backgrounds and interests. Once they’ve established trust, they may ask for money or personal information.