BY EMMA YOUNG
More than 30 WA students from two universities have fallen for a scam that has defrauded them of half a million dollars worth of tuition fees.
The Major Fraud Squad’s identity crime team is conducting an inquiry into the high-tech thefts which occurred at Curtin University and Edith Cowan University over the past two months.
Police cannot confirm the final figure but the total amount stolen is estimated to be $500,000.
Detective Sergeant Peter Birch said more than 30 students had contacted police after being defrauded but more victims were expected to emerge as investigations continued.
Predominantly Chinese foreign students were approached on an online social networking site and via telephone by a third party with an offer to pay their full tuition fees at a discount.
When the students saw that their fees had been paid, they paid the bulk of their fees to the third party electronically using the bill payment facility Bpay.
It later transpired the fee payment made by the third party was completed using stolen credit card information and the transactions were declined leaving the students liable for their fees.
Sgt Birch warned students they need to be aware of ‘too good to be true’ offers.
“It could have been anyone,” he said. “Basically, what we say, is if it sounds too good to be true it normally is.
“In this case a discount was offered for payment of fees.
“If someone’s going to pay your full fees and you’re going to pay a discounted price – it sounds too good to be true.”
Sgt Birch said the online nature of the scam made the investigation into finding the criminals difficult.
“It’s not simple. It’s internet-based, it’s computer-based, it’s more complex,” he said.
Sgt Birch said students worsened the situation by acting as intermediaries, with news of the ‘discount’ spreading largely by word of mouth.
Curtin corporate relations and development vice president Valerie Raubenheimer said the university wasted no time in making police aware of the situation.
“As soon as we were notified of the possibility that our students had been affected by the scam we reported it to the police and began investigating it ourselves so we could identify students who may have been caught up in the fraud,” she said.
“We also notified the Student Guild and issued a warning to all international students to be aware of financial scams.”
Ms Raubenheimer said Curtin was trying to support students affected by the scam.
“The enrolments of the students affected have been maintained and payment plans will be arranged for any student in financial difficulty as a result of this fraud,” she said.
“The University also offered students support from translators and counsellors, in case they needed assistance.
“The Student Guild President Jessica Short also reminded students that the Guild would be able to offer them assistance as well.
“It appears about 20 [Curtin] students were affected.”
ECU acting Vice-Chancellor John Finlay-Jones stressed the university was not involved in the scam and was working closely with police to find the suspects.
“ECU staff are not implicated in anyway and are continuing to work closely with affected students to provide support and assistance and are assisting the police detectives with their investigations,” he said.
Council of International Students in Western Australia president Kevin McKenna said the scam would cause great hardship for these students.
“They think this is great, they’re saving mum and dad $2000 or whatever and in fact it’s at enormous cost to the family,” he said.
“It’s a huge amount of money involved for these students and many of them come from poor families, the idea that all these international students are rich is a complete myth.”
Curtin English Language Centre and Curtin International College were aware of the scam but said none of their students had been affected, while the International Students’ Committee had not heard the news.
Police are asking anyone with relevant information to contact the Major Fraud Squad’s detective senior constable Karl Perry on 9220 0701.
Published in the Western Independent October 2010