How to reduce fraud in tuition payments

Peter Butterfield
Peter Butterfield
is the general counsel and chief compliance officer at Flywire, a specialist in international tuition payments.

In recent years, universities and schools have reported what seems to be a spike in tuition payment scams targeting college and university students. International students in particular appear to be a target for bad players trying to take advantage of unsuspecting young adults and their families navigating a variety of new situations in unfamiliar surroundings.

More than 600,000 international students attend schools in Europe and Australia each year, spending more than $9.5 billion on tuition. For these students and their families, the different tuition payment options and associated requirements are not always clear, making them more susceptible to exploitation.

Some scammers represent themselves as government agencies and demand payment of an “international student tariff.” They threaten to revoke a student’s visa if payment is not made via money order, wire transfer or other hard-to-track methods.

Others approach students in visa lines at an embassy, at international student meetings or in tuition payment lines. According to reports from universities and schools, the scammers claim to be agents endorsed by schools specifically to assist international students with their tuition payments.

In 2016, at two schools in the United States, individuals posing as payment company representatives offered Chinese students a 5 per cent discount on their tuition. The scammers got the students to provide their school login credentials, made the tuition payments to the school on behalf of the students using a stolen credit card number and then provided the students with payment confirmation from the school. The students then paid the discounted tuition amount directly to the representative by cheque or wire transfer. By the time the fraudulent tuition payments were rejected and reversed, the scammers were long gone. Student losses were estimated at more than $1 million.

And it’s not just international students. Students at several universities in the UK were victims of an email phishing scam offering fake tuition grants. The emails, appearing to be from the university’s finance office, requested the student’s personal banking information and directed the victims to a bank verification page to receive their grants.

These are just some of the examples we’ve seen. The scams vary, but they keep emerging. Students and their families have to be vigilant. To that end, here are some common-sense steps you should take to protect yourselves:

  • Be wary of any person offering to make a tuition payment on your behalf or promising a discount on payment. If the offer sounds too good to be true, it almost certainly is.
  • Avoid individuals and companies in your home country advertising tuition payment services that are not listed on the school’s website or endorsed by the school. Some scammers even create a seemingly legitimate social media presence. Always check with the university before agreeing to process any payment through a third party that is not directly affiliated with the school, and not visible on the school’s payment website or included in school-provided payment instructions.
  • Schools absolutely do contract with local agents to help recruit international students, and many are legitimately engaged by the schools. But many are not. Warning signs of an unscrupulous agent may include a demand for a large upfront payment or deposit, offers to create false documents on the student’s behalf, refusal to provide legitimate references, or charging fees for services that the school provides for free, such as orientation and accommodation support.
  • Never share personal, banking or financial information with anyone who lacks a verifiable relationship with the university. The requestor may be trying to obtain the information for fraudulent use. Always verify who you are speaking with. In many cases, you can verify a company’s legitimacy on the school’s website.
  • Always be vigilant about how (in person, by phone, via social media) and where (immigration lines, international admitted students meetings and so on) you may be approached by scammers. When in doubt, contact the school. Never be pressured by any proclaimed deadline or threats of retaliation.