This story was written for J310F Reporting Words, Spring 2016
In the spring of her senior year, University of Texas graduate Tracy Le received a disturbing phone call that left her shaken and eager to file a report with the UT Police Department.
The caller claimed to be a law enforcement agent, and told Le that she had unpaid “student taxes.” If she didn’t pay, the caller said she would be arrested. Le talked to the caller for over an hour before she began to suspect that she was being scammed. The conversation quickly turned hostile.
“They started making threat claims that they were going to send people over to my apartment and rape me, so I hung up and immediately called the police,” Le said. “I was terrified because they knew all my information.”
From a quick Google search, Le learned that her case was not unique—this type of call was a relatively prevalent scam on the UT campus. The callers had found her information on the UT directory, a public database that provides information such as names, addresses, and phone numbers of current students.
According to UTPD officer William Pieper, this scam has been happening for several semesters, and the number of scam-related reports he receives is again on the rise.
“We see a lot at the beginning of the fall semester, and then in spring during tax season,” Pieper said.
According to Pieper, the scammers use an Internet app to clone the phone numbers of local police department, adding an extra layer of credibility to their claims.
He said that the scammers demand an interesting payment method—instead of paying with credit card or check, the scammers ask students to withdraw money from their bank, and put it on a prepaid cash card. The scammers will then ask for the number of the cash card, and reroute the money to a private account.
Most students catch on to the scam before this happens, but Pieper said the UTPD receives six or seven reports every semester of students who have paid this way and lost their money.
For Pieper, the concerning part of this scam is the ease with which the scammers can obtain student information.
“For a variety of reasons, I recommend that students don’t have their information on the directory,” Pieper said.
Currently, the student directory is an opt-out system, which means that students’ information is available to the public unless they specifically request that it be hidden.
“The sad thing is, a lot of students just don’t know about the directory,” Pieper said. “When I challenge students to look themselves up in the directory, they are frequently amazed at how much information is there.”
Pieper said that this might not be a problem for long, however, thanks to new legislation by the UT student government. In October, the senate of college councils passed legislation that will make the directory an opt-in program.
Once the opt-in program is implemented at the beginning on the 2016 fall semester, students’ information will only be shown if they add it themselves through the UT website. This should dramatically increase the level of privacy for students at UT.
For now, Pieper advises students to take an active role in preventing these scams.
“The best thing students can do is prevent it by restricting the information that is in the directory,” Pieper said. “If you want to have someone call you on your cell phone, give them your cell phone number. Don’t allow the directory to do that for you.”
Students should also be aware that the scams are occurring and take precautions if they are contacted about “student taxes,” according to the IRS.
“If someone calls unexpectedly claiming to be from the IRS [or other law enforcement or government agency] with aggressive threats if you don’t pay immediately, it’s a scam artist calling,” said IRS Commissioner John Koskinen in an interview for the IRS website. “The first IRS contact with taxpayers is usually through the mail. Taxpayers have rights, and this is not how we do business.”