It was 6 p.m. on an evening in April. On his way to the 7-Eleven, a VCU art student, who asked to remain anonymous for this story, was approached by a man asking for money to buy diapers and food for his children.
“No one else was helping him out,” the student said. “He was acting like he was stressed, like he needed help. He asked me if I could cash a check for him, and I said ‘yeah.’”
The victim went to the Wells Fargo ATM on campus near Barnes & Noble, deposited a check for $300 and the two went their separate ways. It wasn’t until the check bounced that the student realized he had been taken advantage of.
It’s not the first time something like this has happened to a student. The VCU Police Department said at least eight incidents of either in-person or online fraud have been reported since February.
VCU PD Detective Shawn Kelley said situations like this have been happening to students on campus in recent months. He added it usually happens in one of two ways.
In one scenario, the scammer approaches the would-be victim with a story and an excuse for why they can’t withdraw money. The scammer hands the victim a fake check and asks them to withdraw the money from their bank’s ATM. After the money is withdrawn, the victim gets a notification from their bank saying the check has bounced.
The checks normally range from $100 to $600, Kelley said.
However, not every case went unsolved, The VCU PD arrested the scammer in this victim’s case.
The man who victimized the student “has been arrested and is awaiting trial on two counts of grand larceny and one count of obtaining money by false pretenses,” said Michael Kelly, spokesperson of the VCU PD.
He also said incidents like this occur both day and night at the Barnes & Noble and Student Commons Wells Fargo ATMs on campus.
The second scenario is like the first. However, the exchange begins online, and it’s called ‘phishing’. In this case, the victim gets an email from a scammer, usually introducing himself as someone familiar.
Kelley said often times, the con artists have done their research before reaching out to potential victims.
“They’ve looked you up on Facebook,” Kelley said. “Find an independent way to verify who they are … you can ask them for a phone number where you can get back to them at their work.”
From there, the exchange continues in the same way as in person. The scammer sends a fake check, and sometimes a promise of monetary rewards.
“They’ll say, ‘you can keep $300,’” Kelley said. “If you don’t know who you’re cashing a check for, you should not be cashing it because you’re the one responsible at that point for the money.”
Kelley attributed the recent rise in check fraud and phishing to a variety of factors, namely online banking.
“People are more comfortable with online banking and depositing a check at an ATM. If it’s not too abnormal for them, it’s not going to be too out of place for them to help someone else in this manner,” Kelley said.
The incidences of check fraud on campus recently are nonviolent, casual encounters, Kelley said.
“They don’t want to draw any more suspicion to themselves than necessary.”
For in-person check fraud, Kelley said he recommends telling the stranger you don’t feel comfortable with the request, get a description of the person and call the police right away to identify the subject.
When it comes to phishing, VCU Technology Services Information Security Officer Dan Han said that recipients of phishing scams should report such scams to the his department.
“The VCU Information Security team will take appropriate action to block the response mechanisms, websites, IP addresses even email addresses in certain cases—back to the scammers,” Han said.
Han added his team also posts all reported email, phone, or other scams on the VCU PhishingNet, so other students can check the site if they receive a suspicious message of any kind.