Scammers impersonating agents from some of Melbourne’s top universities are using an online scam to cheat international students out of thousands of dollars.

The extortion is currently being investigated by Victoria police, and has claimed victim to at least six international students from Melbourne and even more in Sydney. The scam even cheated one student victim out of more than $35,000.

In February, the Australian Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC) warned foreign students in the country to be aware of individuals imitating departmental officers seeking payment for supposed breaches of their visa conditions.

A spokesman said, “The department has received information from a number of students who have been contacted by people claiming to be from immigration-related agencies.

“Con artists claiming to be from DIAC tell their targets that their visa working conditions have been breached, advising that a fine has been issued and must be paid in full.

“Anyone contacted by people seeking such payments should refuse to pay, and should report the incident to the police.”

Many are concerned these scams are evolving following a high-profile investigation that revealed widespread exploitation in Australia’s international student workplace. The fraudsters prey on foreign students’ vulnerabilities and ignorance of visa laws, often resulting in devastating consequences.

Last month, the millionaire head of the labour-hire company favoured by Australia Post was charged for running an alleged criminal syndicate that fabricated student visas and exploited foreign students as cheap postal delivery drivers.

Baljit Singh and his associates, Rakesh Kumar and Mukesh Sharma, were taken into custody after Australian federal police swarmed on affluent properties connected to the trio following a nine-month investigation.

Mr Singh was in charge of the con; convincing Indian students that they could study at his government-subsidised training college in Melbourne’s northern suburbs to lure them to Australia.

The students were promised working visas or permanent residency on completion of their studies, but they received no education and were subcontracted to work for Australia Post for less than minimum wage.

Victims were charged up to $10,000 to study at Singh’s business training college, St Stephen Institute of Technology, which was subsidised by the federal and state governments.

In the country’s latest scam, it has come to light that the fraudsters are international students studying in Melbourne; one institution has taken action against those behind the scam.

The swindlers posed as education agents for “major universities”, offering up to 10 percent discounts on student tuition fees, and claimed that the funds would be passed on to the relevant university.

The service has been advertised on a number of Chinese websites, including Yeeyi and 6park, as well as on social media sites We Chat and Facebook, though the ads have since been taken down.

One victim, Luke Zhang, can only afford to eat one meal a day until he repays the $35,127 he lost to the scam. He works in a job that pays a substandard wage, and the cost of rent and bills on top of his debt means he is struggling to make ends meet.

In October last year, Zhang paid the scammers in full. It wasn’t until months later that the University informed him the agent’s fee had bounced back and Zhang was saddled with the debt. He was forced to borrow a further $8,000 from a friend in order to pay the University.

Due to his emotional turmoil, Zhang then failed three of his four subjects and must now resit them. He fears a second failure could risk him breaching the terms of his visa.

He said, “It’s a hard time [but] I believe I can get through it. We feel we are being kept out of society because of our poor English.”

Wings Foundation is a newly formed legal service set up by Chinese students to advocate for international student rights. Raynor ZhongLui Li is the organisation’s welfare officer, and he claims that international students in Australia are frequently oppressed, but the majority are reluctant to complain due to fears they will be sent home.

Mr ZhongLui Li claims that the Universities were the “primary caretaker” of the students; it is therefore their duty to educate them about these scams, identify their own education agents, and offer fee relief or legal aid to those who have fallen victim. Instead, he says, students are treated as “cash cows”.

Mr ZhongLui Li added, “In the long run, a large number of these students will eventually become permanent residents, and these memories will stick with them.”

This case is yet another troubling example of international student exploitation within the higher education circle- this time from students themselves. With Australia’s increasing reputation for student profiteering, its foreign student population will take their knowledge skill and talent to one of the country’s global competitors if protective measures are not soon put in place.

Image via Shutterstock.

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