COVID-19 scams
Victims lost at least A$11.8 million to COVID-19 scams in Australia last year. Source: Spencer Platt/Getty Images/AFP

We’re well into 2021, but COVID-19 scams show no sign of slowing down. The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) recorded 32,200 threat-based COVID-19 scams in 2020 alone. The victims have lost close to 12 million Australian dollars from these scams, which call for greater vigilance among vulnerable groups in Australia. With that in mind, here’s what international students should know about the rise in COVID-19 scams.

What COVID-19 scams are there?

Of all the COVID-19 scams recorded between January and October last year, 74% were Chinese authority scams. These scammers call up Chinese natives, impersonating police, embassy, or government officials. They then claim to have evidence that you are involved in illegal activities or face visa issues — which you can only get out of if you pay a “fine.”

Another scam you should look out for is the virtual kidnapping scam. It starts with a similar claim of criminal activity. The scam then takes a dark turn as students are forced to send photos or videos of themselves bound and blindfolded. Then, scammers use these videos to bully a ransom out of their family back in China.

In a more recent format of COVID-19 scams, these scammers ring up claiming the Chinese government is tracking all Chinese citizens abroad during the pandemic. They then request personal information for a “health check” — which they may use to further the scam or steal your identity. Other scams involve fake university agents who demand hefty payments for their dodgy services (which include producing fake transcripts), as well as discount scams that require you to pay hefty fees upfront.

COVID-19 scams

Chinese natives in Australia should watch out for COVID-19 scams targeting vulnerable individuals. Source: Greg Baker/AFP

Who do they target?

According to ACCC, threat-based scams disproportionally affect younger people — especially those who speak English as a second language. This places international students in the high-risk group for COVID-19 scams. Naturally, Mandarin-speaking students are the prime target for these scams.

“Reporters in the 18 to 24 age group experienced by far the highest reported losses (over A$5.8 million). This trend appears to be continuing into 2021,” an ACCC spokesperson told The PIE News. The only way you can avoid becoming a victim is by staying vigilant.

The spokesperson elaborated, “They rely on fear, intimidation and people’s instinct to comply with authority, to scam victims. A key thing to remember is that government departments will never send pre-recorded messages to your phone or threaten you with immediate arrest.”

So if you receive a call from a threatening caller, don’t panic. “Stop, think and check whether their story is true. If you’re not sure whether a call is legitimate, hang up and call the organisation directly by finding their details through an independent search such as a phone book, past bill or online search,” the ACCC spokesperson advises. Check out the official ACCC website for more tips and updates.