Like many students on a tight budget, Vanessa Pradilla was looking for casual work on Gumtree. When she found an ad offering $25 an hour as a cleaner in a Melbourne CBD apartment, she thought she had found the perfect job.
Though suspicious of the generous pay, Pradilla, an international student from Colombia, responded to the ad. A man replied almost immediately, saying he was a doctor, working in the US.
He told Pradilla his wife would fly to Melbourne shortly and that he would send her first payment in advance, a cheque for almost $8500. Some of the money was supposedly meant for the travel arrangements for his wife.
Pradilla, who is doing a master’s in entrepreneurship at Swinburne University, kept in contact with the man who called himself Malcolm. “One morning I received a phone call from the US and he asked if the cheque had arrived. This made me feel more secure as I now actually had talked to someone.”
Despite her wariness, she gave him her address. “I decided to proceed to see where it went. I had yet not worked a day for him. I was suspicious, but naive.”
The cheque arrived almost three weeks later. The printing on the envelope was in Russian and the cheque was issued by an association from Ukraine. The man told Pradilla to cash the cheque, deduct the money of her first payment and transfer the rest of the money to the travel agent.
International students are not the only target group for scammers. Last year SBS News reported that according to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC), scammers had swindled close to $200,000 from migrants and temporary-visa holders.
The ACCC received more than 300 complaints from people who had been contacted by fraudsters claiming to be from the Department of Immigration, asking for money to sort out problems regarding their paperwork or visa status and threatening them with deportation.
Olivia Doyle, who runs the job club for international students, says that scams have been a fairly constant feature through the nine years she has worked at Swinburne. She always tell students to be careful on websites like Gumtree.
“Gumtree is usually for companies that can’t afford to pay for proper advertising.” She says it’s surprising how many students end up in situations where they have been scammed, often by being underpaid, but sometimes in a more serious way.
One student received an unsolicited email and agreed to re-address parcels. He received a parcel, and without opening it re-addressed and posted it. “Who knows what was in those parcels? I thought drugs, but it could be anything,” says Ms Doyle.
Money laundering scams are being commonplace. “I had another student recently who was from Central America, she had been offered an admin position over the internet. It all looked very professional but it turned out to be a money laundering operation.”
Gabrielle Marchetti, principal lawyer at JobWatch, runs the International Students Work Rights Legal Service. She has been in contact with some students regarding scam complaints after they looked for work on Gumtree.
She says that it’s important to be cautious because the website is unregulated. People who are new to Australia are more vulnerable, which is one of the reasons why international students become targets for scammers.
Vanessa Pradilla started to feel worried as the fraudster kept contacting and her asking if the money had arrived to her account. “I said no, and I thought maybe it took a bit longer because it was such a high sum of money. I’m not very familiar with the banking system of Australia.”
But the money never arrived. Pradilla went to her bank, and they told her that the cheque had bounced, that there were no funds. She was scared and felt uneasy. “I called the number from the US but no one replied. I was worried about my safety and tried to make sense of the situation.”
There’s nothing new with scammers targeting international students to take advantage of their unfamiliarity with fair work conditions in Australia. The expansion of online platforms offer more ways to look for jobs, but this also increase the risk of getting involved with untrustworthy employers, scammers and sometimes even illegal activities.
Olivia Doyle’s advice to students is to look for jobs either through SwinEmploy, or other trusted sites like Seek. Her best tip to avoid being scammed is something she tells students all the time: “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”
JobWatch’s Gabrielle Marchetti says if a student senses that something isn’t right, they should trust their gut instinct.
Vanessa Pradilla agrees. “If you sense something is weird, ask other people for their opinion. Consult a friend or a local person that might have more insight.”
Fortunately, Pradilla’s bank told her that since the cheque had bounced and wasn’t in her name, they would not investigate further but they advised her to be careful in the future.
Olivia Doyle says that students don’t always come forward as they might think that they’ve done something illegal. They tend to ask for help once their problems have escalated.
Ms Marchetti says it’s important to make students aware that there is a place for them to come to if they have problems. JobWatch offer free legal advice and the information shared is confidential.
She highlights the importance of acting quickly. “The longer the time lag between the scam and the student coming forward, the harder it will be to take action. We encourage students to speak up straight away and get in touch with Study Melbourne as soon as possible.”
Vanessa Pradilla didn’t take any legal action; she is just happy she didn’t get involved in a more serious situation. She is now working as a receptionist, a job she found through a friend who recommended her to her employer. “Luckily, I didn’t lose anything other than my time that I could have spent on finding another job.”
The Australian Federal Police website states there is a new way to recruit mules, which expands on existing money laundering scams. Criminals now advertise jobs on employment or job-seeking websites. Depending on the situation, people who agree to participate in such ‘jobs’ may be prosecuted. A conviction for an offence of money laundering may carry a penalty of up to 20 years imprisonment.
The Gumtree website has a scam security centre section that lists common types of scams and informs users what to watch out for.
A Gumtree spokesman was not available to comment.
If you have received money in your bank account, or have received and/or forwarded goods under these circumstances, you are advised to report the incident to your bank and the nearest state or territory police station.
If you need free legal advice contact Study Melbourne and JobWatch (1800 056 449). You can also ask an ISA by contacting the Swinburne International Student Life Team on (03) 92146741 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. For guidelines regarding your right as an employee call FairWork Infoline (13 13 94) or visit www.fairwork.gov.au.