Scams are crimes in which someone tricks a victim into giving them money or property using deception or fraud. The following are types of scams that the Washington University Police Department (WUPD) has seen that have targeted WashU students or scholars.

If you believe you make have been the victim of a scam or an attempted scam:

Review the Better Business Bureau (BBB) 2024 Phishing Scams Study for information on red flags to watch for an types of scame.

IRS scams

With this type of scam, a call is placed to a student or a scholar by someone claiming to be from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), the U.S. taxing authority in the U.S. The caller typically claims that the IRS is about to take some type of legal action against the victim unless they immediately wire money to a certain address or bank account. The caller is not actually from the IRS, but is a scammer stealing your money.

Employment scams

Employment scams involve someone contacting a job seeker with a job offer. The scammer will offer to send the victim an advance payment before any work is done. They may tell the victim to keep a percentage of the deposit and send the rest of the money to a different address. The scammer may be using the victim for illegal transactions or may be trying to gain access to the victim’s money.

Ransom scams

In this case, the scammer calls and claims to be holding a victim’s family member or other loved one hostage. The scammer demands that money be wired to a bank account immediately or the loved one will be harmed or killed.

Rental housing scams

Many international students and scholars lease and sublet apartments in the St. Louis area. It is important for those who are seeking to rent (or sublease) an apartment to beware of possible scams. According to the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, there are three (3) primary ways to know whether or not an apartment rental opportunity or inquiry is a scam:

  1. They want you to wire money. This is the surest sign of a scam. There’s never a good reason to wire money to pay a security deposit, application fee or first month’s rent. Wiring money is the same as sending cash – once you send it, you have no way to get it back.
  2. They want a security deposit or first month’s rent before you’ve met or signed a lease. It’s never a good idea to send money to someone you’ve never met in person for an apartment you haven’t seen. If you can’t visit an apartment or house yourself, ask someone you trust to go and confirm that it’s for rent. In addition to setting up a meeting, do a search on the landlord and listing. If you find the same ad listed under a different name, that’s a clue that it may be a scam.
  3. They say they are located outside of the country but have a plan to get the keys into your hands. It might involve a lawyer or “agent” working on their behalf. Some scammers even create fake keys. Be skeptical and don’t send money overseas. If you can’t meet in person, see the apartment or sign a lease before you pay, keep looking.
Online sales/market scams

Online marketplace sites like Craigslist and Offerup are also sometimes used in scams or robberies. Sergeant Wayne says the WUPD has seen quite a few crimes that have been carried out using such websites, for example, “where a student arranges through the website to buy a phone or something and as soon as they meet the other person and produce the money, the other person grabs the money and runs away. Or they may be given what looks like a phone, but it doesn’t work or it’s only an empty phone case.”

How to catch a scam

Some warning signs can tip you off that someone may be trying to scam you. If someone contacts you with an opportunity that requires payment, it may be someone trying to scam you. Here are some red flags to look out for:

  • Follow your instincts
    If something doesn’t sound right or feel right, it’s probably not right.
  • Too good to be true
    If an offer sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Especially with unsolicited job offers that offer payment even before any work begins.
  • Time sensitive demands
    Most of the scams have very time sensitive demands. Scammers will demand payment right away. This works to a scammer’s advantage because their chance of success decreases if victims have time to think about the situation or to talk to the authorities. If someone tries to rush you into something, it’s often a scam. We recommend that you slow down and inform OISS and WUPD.

How to Protect Yourself

  • Contact the police
    If you think someone may be trying to scam you, reach out and contact somebody, ideally the police. The WUPD are available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
  • Use the police lobby for online marketplace transactions
    The WUPD encourages students to use the police department’s lobby as a meeting place for transactions set up through Craigslist or other online sites. Sergeant Wayne points out that “[the WashU Police Department’s] lobby is open and manned 24 hours a day and also has cameras.”
  • Check your bank accounts regularly
    Check your banking information on a regular basis to make sure no unauthorized transactions have occurred.
  • Report suspected fraud/scams in a timely manner
    If you contact WUPD right away, they can likely stop a scam or fraud before any losses occur. Report in a timely manner.