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Incoming U of T international students, beware of fraud

Cybersecurity concerns for students and how to avoid them
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JESSICA LAM/THE VARSITY
JESSICA LAM/THE VARSITY

Around a month ago, the Toronto Police Service alerted the university about new reports of attempted fraud against incoming international students. In light of these reports, the university is asking that students who are new to Toronto and to Canada make sure they are aware of common scams, which typically involve attackers contacting individuals through their phones, emails, or social media accounts in an attempt to get money or private information from them.  

Fraud and phishing scams at U of T 

According to Campus Security, there is usually a higher number of reported phishing attacks at the start of the academic year. However, despite the higher influx of international students coming to campus this year, it has received 24 reports of fraud and fraud-related incidents so far this year, compared to the 20 reports made in 2020 and the 30 reports in 2019.  

Fraud attempts that are targeted toward international students are commonly presented in the form of pay-for-scholarship scams spread through social media platforms such as WhatsApp. Recently, the university has seen a small increase in reports of attackers impersonating officials from organizations such as the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the Canada Border Services Agency, or foreign police services or embassies.

Campus Security receives several thousands of reports of phishing emails from the U of T community every year. These emails are usually directed to U of T email addresses as well as external addresses. The most common email fraud types are fake job offers and gift card scams. 

Student experiences with scams

Gabriel Palmieri is a Master’s student in linguistics originally from the United States, and was a victim of a phishing scam when he came to U of T. He received an email on his U of T account asking for his UTORid password, warning that his account could be deleted. The disclosure of his UTORid gave the scammers access to his email and other U of T accounts. Eventually, the university temporarily suspended his accounts due to spam email coming from them.

In an interview with The Varsity, Palmieri talked about the challenge that international students face when learning to navigate the new university system while also trying to coordinate their move to a different country. “I was naive, and I was too busy trying to figure out how to get to Canada in a reasonable manner,” he said.  

Safeguarding students against scams 

Fraud and phishing scams can seem very realistic, and it may be difficult to identify them, especially for international students coming to Canada for the first time. 

According to a U of T spokesperson, “the university is increasing awareness of these types of frauds targeting international students through the Centre for International Experience, Residence Life and the Community Safety Office.” 

The Community Safety Office has published tips for international students on how to prevent fraud attacks. The Security Matters website advises students on how to protect themselves against phishing scams. The Security Planner, developed by Citizen lab at the Munk School of Global Affairs, is another online resource that provides personalized recommendations and advice on cybersecurity matters such as safely browsing the web, safeguarding online accounts, and protecting financial data. 

“Our main piece of advice is to use your best judgement, and to always seek advice before providing personal information or monetary items like cash, or cryptocurrency. It is fair to say, if an offer looks too good to be true then it probably is,” wrote the U of T spokesperson. 

If a student believes they have been a victim of fraud, they should contact Campus Security or the police. They can use U of T’s safety app, which provides reporting tools and other resources. Phishing scam messages can be reported through the “report message” function in U of T email inboxes and through reporting mechanisms within social media platforms.