Amid rise in scams during COVID-19, caution is crucial for international students

Illustration of a woman getting a spam call
Keira Lee/Staff

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​​The call came on my cell phone on a Monday afternoon, two months after moving to the United States.

“Your Social Security number has been suspended due to suspicious activity of money laundering in El Paso, Texas.”

As I heard the words, I was doubtful and not so naive as to gulp it down. But an hour later, I found myself briskly walking toward my bank while the voice on the line sharply urged me forward.

Growing up in Japan, where nearly one-third of the population is aged 65 or older, not a day went by without seeing news of the elderly being scammed. But I never thought it could happen to a young adult such as myself, and so I unwittingly almost got sucked into a scam.

I’m not alone: Fraud cases have been rising in sync with COVID-19. Among the college-aged population in the United States, international students are the most vulnerable as they lack the knowledge to protect themselves in the first place. The pandemic has shifted personal business from in-person to online and onto the phone, and we often find ourselves forced to make risky decisions based on limited information.

Preparing to study abroad amid the pandemic meant that most of the administrative and logistical hassles were done online, such as house hunting, opening a bank account, getting approval for a credit card — the list goes on. But I could not change my name in the Social Security records online. (Even though I’m a Japanese national, I received a Social Security number as a child when I lived with my parents in the United States several years ago).

Since all Social Security offices were closed to the public, I spent hours on the Social Security Administration, or SSA, website trying to navigate through the procedures without luck. I would be on hold for more than an hour before talking to an actual human being, and I traveled to the nearest office with a slight hope only to be turned away by security. When I learned that my passport — the only ID that I have — needed to be mailed in, I was paranoid. Physically leaving your passport is not common in Japan, but being in the United States, I had no choice.

When I got the aforementioned phone call, I was too quick to believe it was legitimate because the displayed phone number seemed to be exactly that of the SSA. After I answered the caller’s questions regarding the money laundering charge, he said, to my relief — in that moment, at least — that he believed this was an identity theft case. He continued to explain that the U.S. Marshals Service office was preparing a case against me, and I would need to initiate the Alternative Dispute Resolution, or ADR, to have the case dropped. The caller explained that ADR was a process in which all the bank accounts using my Social Security number would be frozen within an hour of this call. To secure my money, I was advised to withdraw all of my bank deposits, which stood at about $2,000, and transfer them to a “Social Security wallet.”

As the caller threatened that my noncompliance could potentially cost me my visa status — though his words were disguised as a kind caution — I became anxious. Was this a normal procedure that I didn’t know about, like so many other things in the United States?

I was unconvinced, but I began walking toward my bank regardless. On my way, I was so deep in thought that I almost fell down a staircase. My stumble made me pause, and I turned around to seek advice from a graduate student supervisor whose office happened to be nearby. This decision saved me from becoming one among millions of identity fraud cases in the United States — cases that resulted in a staggering total loss of $56 billion in 2020 alone.

To my fellow international students, here is some advice: Ask for letters through certified mail, especially if your English skills are stronger in reading than in aural comprehension and speaking. The U.S. government takes time to do things for you, so take your time when it wants something from you; as punctuality is ingrained in me culturally, I got really worked up about the one-hour limit that the caller insisted I must address the situation within — which, of course, all turned out to be fake. Be vigilant and ask someone when in doubt, such as a friend, school administrator or neighbor. Spend some time reading the Scams and Safety page on the UC Berkeley International Office’s website. I certainly wish I had noticed this valuable resource at the outset of my academic studies.

Additionally, the International Office should regularly issue warnings in its routine email newsletter to raise awareness and prevent other students from falling into a trap like I almost did. Offering foreign students workshops on fraud prevention would also go a long way.

Remembering that scam call gives me goosebumps considering all the things that could have gone wrong. I was extremely stressed by the call and learned my lesson the hard way. International students come to UC Berkeley with high hopes. As we approach the beginning of a new academic year with the uncertainty of the pandemic still lingering, awareness and vigilance will be key in our efforts to sail smoothly through our time in this beautiful city.

Natsumi Ohara is an international student from Japan pursuing a Master of Public Affairs at the Goldman School of Public Policy. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter @dailycalopinion.