In late August, a University of Wisconsin graduate student contacted the Madison Police Department saying she had been duped out of $15,000 by someone who claimed to be from the MPD, according to a release.

The callers told the woman she had to pay them $15,000 immediately to avoid deportation. She then purchased $15,000 in gift cards and gave the pin numbers to the “police,” the report said.

While many think this couldn’t possibly happen to them, MPD’s Public Information Officer Joel DeSpain said these fraudulent attacks are becoming more and more common.

“We’ve seen several of these over the last couple of years. In many cases, the scammers are very convincing and keep them on the phone for hours,” DeSpain said. “A lot of times the people who are victimized are students because of their vulnerability.”

Chief Information Security Officer and Director at the UW Office of Cybersecurity Bob Turner said phishing scams are on the rise. An average of 200 phishing emails was reported each week during June and July of this year. That quantity almost doubled in August.

While many phishing e-mails attempt to coerce the victim to hand over personal information to be used to create accounts that are run up and never paid, recently there was a run of business e-mail compromise events that attempted to entice UW Staff to send wire transfers to accounts in obscure locations, Turner said.

“Scams are an easy payday for the criminal. Very little effort is required with very low risk to the scammer as fake names and addresses to send the money are easy to create,” Turner said. “The more skillful actors will try to capture e-mail accounts from university staff and create phishing e-mails that look legitimate.”

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And these aren’t the only phishing scams to go around Madison recently, DeSpain said.

According to DeSpain, other scams have targeted small businesses, threatening to turn off their power. Another common case in Madison has been scammers contacting elderly people saying their loved ones are in trouble and they need money to let them go.  

“These people who are doing this are very very good,” DeSpain said. “They really convince people that they are going to be in trouble or that they have a loved one in trouble, and they need to get their money out right away. In all these cases, the victims are somewhat vulnerable.”

Most phone scams follow a pattern similar to e-mail “phishing” scams, Turner said. The caller establishes a relationship with the victim by creating a scenario that might interest the student and then makes the victim purchase money orders, reloadable gift cards, or other instruments that can easily be turned into cash.

Turner added that larger dollar value scams might involve stories about family members in need or a larger unpaid debt that, if not paid, might impact their standing at the university.

UW Cybersecurity Education and Awareness Program Director, Ed Jalinske said while it can be scary for students to encounter scams, UW always has their backs.

“The UW Madison Wiscmail team maintains spam filters that inspect all mail sent to us from non-UW accounts,” Jalinske said. “The cybersecurity operations center reviews all emails that are reported as phishing and then blocks access to any of those links contained in those emails. We’re especially vigilant about websites that mimic a UW NetID login page.”

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The university also engages in prevention efforts by educating ways that students can avoid being scammed. The university sends information to students after scam attacks, educates students and participates in cybersecurity awareness month.

DeSpain said he also tries to get information out to the public after scams, but there is still not much they can do as they are a local police department.

“They are pretty despicable crimes, and unfortunately what we can do is warn people and certainly forward these cases on to federal authorities, but as a small police department, we don’t have the jurisdiction or power to go after them,” DeSpain said. “Mainly what we try to do is just get the info out there and warn people.”

As for knowing when something is a scam, Jalinske said to look out for grammatical and spelling errors in emails, or a hyperlink that doesn’t go to where the email claims it should.

DeSpain adds that when someone asks you for gift card pin numbers, it is more likely than not a scam.

“One of the ways to tell that it is a scam is when people are asking you for the pin numbers on gift cards,” DeSpain said. “The best that people can do is to be skeptical. Whenever someone is asking you to go get gift cards as a payment, that is a scam — don’t do it.”

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Turner advises students to always be aware of their finances and know the statutes and source of their tuition payments. Keeping close tabs on your personal accounts is hyper important, Turner said. Beware of strangers who try to establish an overly familiar relationship.

Jalinske said with the way emails and accounts can be hacked on campus, students need to take extra precautions, especially with how vulnerable students are to criminals.

“I think the most important thing that students can do to protect themselves is just to teach themselves about what to look out for in these situations,” Jalinske said. “What I would recommend they do is go to our webpage and read more about it there. They can also go to antiphishing.org and they have a great [wealth] of research as well.”