Crime

WeChat and stolen credit cards: How scammers victimized Miami Chinese college students

Zhoasen Zhang, 22, is accused of grand theft and identity theft. Investigators believe he was part of a group of Chinese international students who paid their tuition through a shady company found via the WeChat messaging service.
Zhoasen Zhang, 22, is accused of grand theft and identity theft. Investigators believe he was part of a group of Chinese international students who paid their tuition through a shady company found via the WeChat messaging service. - Miami-Dade Corrections

For Chinese international students, the University of Miami offers a chance at a degree from a prestigious American university.

But higher education is pricey and a handful of those students, struggling to pay bills far from home, wound up duped by a company — likely based in their own country — that enticed them with promises of discounted tuition.

At least five international students recently shelled out thousands of dollars to scammers via the popular Chinese messaging and social media app WeChat. The crooks did pay the tuition bills, giving the students a temporary sense that the service was legit — but they used stolen credit-card numbers to pay the school.

Once the university realized the charges were fraudulent, the students got stuck holding the tuition bill, and lost the money they paid to the cyber thieves.

“They’re out of that money. They were very distraught,” University of Miami Police Detective Thomas Carrigan said of the victims. “They had no idea.”

UM isn’t alone.

Universities such as Penn State and the University of California San Diego have issued warnings about the scam. Three years ago, at the University of Washington, more than 100 students got swindled out of over $1 million in the same tuition scam.

“The university has reached out to our international student community to make them aware of potential scams, and efforts they can take to protect themselves,” according to a statement from UM.

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A University of Miami sign in Coral Gables. MARSHA HALPER

The thieves are targeting the skyrocketing number of Chinese students studying in the United States. As the Chinese economy has expanded dramatically over the past decade, the United States has become the top destination for the nation’s students.

During the past decade, the number of students has tripled. In the 2017-2018 academic year, 363,341 Chinese international students studied at American universities, according to the Institute of International Education. That’s up from 81,127 in 2007-2008.

That influx of Chinese students, many who struggle with the English language and living so far from home, has also led to a cottage industry of shady companies that purport to help them gain admission and thrive once in classes. Some companies ghost write essays for students, while others take tests for students, according to a Reuters investigation.

American schools have eagerly welcomed Chinese students because they generally pay full tuition. But there is intense financial pressure on students, and the exchange rate between China and the United States often makes paying tuition, housing and meals a challenge.

“They don’t come from a lot of money. They’re not spoiled rich kids driving Ferraris,” said Nelson Lee, a Seattle lawyer who represented pro bono some of the victims at the University of Washington. “The vast majority of the kids were from lower income families for who the loss of $10,000 is devastating.”

The University of Miami, a private university in Coral Gables, is not cheap. The school estimates that for the 2019-2020 academic year, tuition will cost a little over $50,000 for an undergrad student. On-campus housing, books, meal plans and other fees can add another $20,000 in expenses.

The thieves target a community that is extremely tight knit. At the University of Florida, Chinese international students are often targeted by people speaking Mandarin trying to get sensitive financial information out of the victims, said Chun-Chung Choi, the faculty adviser for the Chinese Students Association.

In some calls, callers purport to be from the Chinese Consulate General’s office in Houston. The calls were so alarming that consulate officials recently traveled to campus to warn students that they never call citizens out of the blue. Sometimes, the thieves will claim that family members back home have an emergency and need money.

“They are preying on the uncertainty Chinese students have being so far away from home,” Choi said.

In the UM case, they used WeChat, an app that is ubiquitous in China and averages more than a billion users a month. The app isn’t just messaging: Users can upload photos and videos, play games, engage in group forums and pay for items big and small.

At the University of Miami, as with many college campuses, Chinese international students use WeChat extensively to network with each other. “We are foreigners. We have to band together because sometimes there are language barriers. It’s very human,” said Ke Wu, a UM sophomore majoring in finance.

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WeChat, the Chinese messaging service, has more than 1 billion users monthly. - Tencent

According to UM police, the scammers targeted college groups on WeChat, offering discounts of between 15 and 30 percent on tuition. The students didn’t have to pay anything up front. Instead, the scammers asked them for their log-on information for the school’s website that processes payments.

Once in the university’s system, the thieves used stolen credit-card numbers to pay tuition. The card numbers were likely purchased from hackers on dark corners of the Internet. Once the students got notification that the tuition was paid, they used WeChat to send over the discounted amount to the scammers’ bank in China.

Not all the students were unwitting victims, police say. Investigators believe at least one knew the service was not legitimate and kept using it over multiple semesters.

In the case of 22-year-old Zhaosen Zhang, the university received three tuition payments in the fall of 2018, each for more than $6,500. Banks returned all three payments after determining they were made fraudulently.

After one payment in October, a woman in New York called the university to complain that Zhang used her debit-card account to make a payment.

Millie Benitez, UM’s associate director of student financials, began her own review and found that Zhang — or at least someone using his account — tried to make a payment in January, according to an arrest warrant. Four separate cards were used, and each attempt was rejected by the banks.

A fifth attempt succeeded. Another payment in February was also made with a stolen credit account, according to the warrant by Detective Carrigan and cybercrimes prosecutor Stewart Hedrick.

Zhang, who is free from jail while awaiting trial, was charged with grand theft and identity theft. Investigators say they believe he went from victim to offender because he used the scam service over multiple semesters.

He has pleaded not guilty. His Orlando-based defense lawyer, Michael S. Brown, declined to discuss details about Zhang’s case. “He’ll have his day in his court. Hopefully, the state will do the right thing,” Brown said.

Any more arrests might be a long shot. Investigators believe the scammers are most likely in China, beyond the reach of US. law.

“We can’t subpoena anything with WeChat,” Carrigan said.

Chinese authorities are not unfamiliar with the troubles students may face living in an unfamiliar country.

The government-sponsored Beijing Overseas Study Service Association, or BOSSA, which works with study-abroad recruitment groups and schools, said education agencies “are becoming more proactive” in counseling students on how to manage their finances while living in the United States.

“An international student should initially consult their agent or institution to investigate the validity of ‘discount deals’ to avoid such scams,” said Jon Santangelo, a spokesman for BOSSA.

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