Public Safety Lieutenant Paul Verrillo has seen all kinds of scams: voices on the phone impersonating the IRS, emails about job offers that pay hundreds of dollars a week for almost no work, and hackers offering false opportunities. Verrillo said that students report scams to him all the time, but usually it’s too late.
The Office of Public Safety knows that scams are incredibly common on campus, and Verrillo said that staff have been trained to recognize scams so that they can advise students not to respond. A few Public Safety Officers have even been targeted by scams themselves.
After hearing numerous reports from students, Verrillo said that the Public Safety Office began to collaborate with the ITS Department to spread information about preventing scams.
“We’ve worked with ITS to get things onto the website,” Verrillo said. “[Scamming has] gotten, probably within the last year, more prevalent and we’re seeing more. We’re trying to figure out ways to get the message out.”
And Verrillo said it is not just college campuses that are getting hit.
“It’s happening everywhere,” Verrillo said. “They prey on elderly folks, too, with the promise of extra money or health insurance.”
According to Verrillo, a typical email scam fools recipients using a simple yet tricky method. First, a scammer, usually from outside the United States, sends a generic email to as many people as possible, offering a job opportunity that is hard to pass up—think several hours of work a week, with compensation in hundreds of dollars. Once the scammer receives a reply, they continue to email back and forth with their latest victim until they come to an agreement about work hours and payment.
And then the scammer agrees to send a check to their new “employee” to compensate them for their work time. However, the value of this check is always a little too high; they instruct their target to deposit the check, keep what they are owed, and send back the remainder. By the time the check bounces, the person being scammed has usually already sent money to the scammer, and they are left with no job, no check, and hundreds of dollars missing from their bank account.
Verrillo said he’s seen this very scam firsthand.
“I’ve had students come in here,” Verrillo said. “One person had a job last year and they did that, and unfortunately it was for 1,200 dollars. It was, keep the 1,200 in your account, send the 400, and a couple weeks later, the check’s bouncing.”
The other common scam that Verrillo said he hears of often begins with a scammer impersonating the IRS. They tell the victim, usually on the phone, that their financial information has been compromised, and urge them to go buy gift cards in order to stockpile their money. The scammer then asks the person to stay on the line and send them photos of the gift cards; those who fall for the scam, of course, never get to use those gift cards, because the balance has already been drained.
Wesleyan’s resident expert on email and phone scams, Verrillo said his passion for researching fraud began when he himself was a victim of a scammer.
“I mean, I’ve been hit like three times,” Verrillo said. “One of them I got everything back, the other two, we lost some money. It comes down to a lot of common sense. When they tell people, ‘Oh, this is the IRS and your tax return was fraudulent,’ people get nervous.”
In students’ Wesleyan inboxes, the most common scams have to do with fake job postings. Verrillo said that students can sort real emails from fake ones by asking some critical questions.
“Is the grammar incorrect?” Verrillo asked. “Is the spelling incorrect? Does it come from a Wesleyan email address? If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. That’s what people fall for.”
Another important detail: The IRS and the Social Security Administration never make phone calls.
“The IRS, first of all, will never call you or send you an email,” Verrillo explained. “They will always send you a letter. So if they give you a phone call and say they’re from the IRS, you already know this is bogus.”
Verrillo recommended that students visit the Federal Trade Commission’s website for more information about common scams and identity theft.
Though he is new to campus, Theo Zarobell ’23 said that he has already received some fishy emails. One of these messages came from a purported Wesleyan alum, who claimed to have heard about Zarobell from his Wesleyan administrator.
“At first I was a little intrigued,” said Zarobell. “And then I thought about who my Wesleyan administrator would have been, and then I was like yeah, it’s definitely B.S. Particularly because there weren’t any details about what kind of job it was. It was just a job.”
Another scam email that was sent to a group of students in the Wesleyan server starts off in a fairly convincing manner. The sender claims to be Dr. Phillip Andrews, a clinical counselor for the Department of Disability Resources and Educational Services. However, the legitimacy of the job offer comes into question in the third paragraph.
“This is a very simple employment,” reads the scam email, riddled with capitalization and spacing errors. “You will only help me Make payments at Walmart and purchase some Items when needed. This employment only takes an hour a day and 3 times a week or 4 for $450 .00 weekly.I am unable to meetup for an interview because I am currently away and helping the disabled students in Australia.”
Though this job opportunity is comically implausible, others have fooled or come close to fooling Wesleyan students. Molly Scotti ’22 said that she received an email about helping provide disadvantaged children with food and school supplies from a professor’s email that had been hacked.
“They actually used the name of a real nonprofit called No Kid Hungry,” Scotti said. “I had sent the guy some of my information, but luckily not my credit card info. When I found out it was fake, I got mad at him and sent a pretty mean email, because he’s stealing people’s money and making them think it’s to help kids.”
Scotti added that the email was particularly convincing because it came from an actual Wesleyan address.
“I fell for it because it was sent by a Wesleyan employee who I had met before,” she said. “It’s really hard to tell the difference if the person hacks a faculty person’s email, because I just inherently trust that what Wes employees send me is legitimate.”
While some students voiced concerns about the volume of scam emails in their inboxes, others said that Wesleyan’s Gmail server is fairly effective at filtering out suspicious emails. Annabelle Lesser ’22 said that now, she doesn’t even see most of the scam emails she receives.
“I normally get a couple of scam emails every few months from people who say they have gotten my information from Wesleyan and would like to offer me a job,” said Lesser. “I have never responded to them, and at this point, they go in my junk mail.”
Once a scam email does reach a student’s Gmail account, though, it can be nearly impossible to locate the source. Often, according to Verrillo, scammers are from overseas and thus outside the range of the FBI’s authority. Further, if scammers know that someone suspects them of fraudulence, they can easily close down their email account and start up a new one within seconds.
The Public Safety Office and the ITS Department are doing all they can to educate students about preventing scams, but ending them altogether is impossible. Verrillo didn’t hesitate to acknowledge the scammers’ ingenuity.
“Every time you find a way to combat this, they’re one step ahead, and they come up with a new scheme,” he said.
Emma Smith can be reached at email@example.com.