Phishing scam targets students as UK fraud rises by 53%

21 September 2016   By Samantha Smith

A phishing scam has been targeting new students by sending them emails claiming they've been awarded an educational grant.

website scam fraud
Credit: Bits And Splits/

Appearing to be from the universities of the students affected, these emails then invite their recipients to redeem their grant by entering their bank details.

One student at Queen Mary University London reported that, after she'd clicked the link provided in the email, she'd been taken to an imitation of her bank's website.

It was at this point that the fraudsters were able to take £300 from her account.

The Student Loans Company say that such phishing campaigns are more common around the months of September, January and April, when they make their payments to students.

This new scam is as much a testament to the increasing financial pressure students are under as it is to the increasing ingenuity of cybercriminals.

Sophisticated cybercriminals

While there have been few other confirmed reports of students losing money to the current scam, the news of its emergence comes at a time when the number of frauds committed between January and June has risen by 53% compared to the same period last year.

This figure was calculated by Financial Fraud Action UK (FFA UK), who are joining with banks and other financial institutions to launch Take Five, a new campaign urging people to stop and think before handing over sensitive personal information.

FFA UK have revealed that the total number of frauds perpetrated between January and June was 1,007,094, whereas the figure for the same period in 2015 was 660,308.

Even though there is no figure for the cost of 2016's frauds, the total cost of all the fraud committed in 2015 was estimated to be £755 million, which itself represents a 26% rise over 2014.

There is as yet no definitive explanation for this ongoing climb. However, reports relating to previous increases have stressed that cybercriminals are increasingly targeting individuals in the face of the improving cybersecurity of businesses and institutions.

Other reports have also noted an increase in scams based on abusing the trust of victims.

For example, the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau revealed that online dating fraud increased by a hefty 33% between 2013 and 2014. Such fraud involves fake dating profiles being used by criminals to win the affections of people with genuine profiles, who are then persuaded to hand over their money.

Similarly, FFA UK affirm that a big part of 2015's rise in fraud was down to "the growth of impersonation and deception scams", in which the cybercriminal "claims to be from a trusted organisation" the victim knows.

In other words, cybercriminals are learning how to perform online versions of the old fashioned confidence trick. Instead of forcibly breaking through security barriers with viruses and hacks, they're increasingly deceiving us into opening these barriers on their behalf.

Vulnerable millennials

This is precisely what they've tried to do with their most recent student phishing campaign, and with similar campaigns from previous years.

It involves sending an email that, as far as its victims can tell, really does look like it comes from the finance departments of their universities.

In light of the threat it poses, students are being advised not to click on any links or open attachments contained within unsolicited emails. They're also being urged to contact known contacts directly via a method other than email to confirm that the messages apparently coming from them are genuine.

Such precautions will help them avoid falling into the traps currently being laid for them by cybercriminals. Correspondingly, the Take Five campaign will hopefully alert the public in general to the dangers of online fraud.

Nonetheless, there are other issues underlying such fraud which need to be looked at before FFA UK or anyone else can hope to tackle online scams to any significant degree.

For one, it should be acknowledged that if frauds targeting students have any chance of success, it's because these students are an especially vulnerable group. Their tuition fees are set to rise in 2017 above the already high figure of £9,000 a year, while their "extortionate" accommodation costs have increased by 18% between 2012/3 and 2015/6.

Added to this, many of the young people at university today - the millennials - are on course to be the first generation to earn less than their parents, with the shift to the less secure jobs of the "gigging economy" meaning that they'll take home £8,000 less during their twenties than the Generation Xers who preceded them.

When these factors are combined, it suddenly becomes much less surprising that fraudsters are targeting students with the promise of much needed extra funding, and that some of those students are falling so easily for these propositions.

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And while economic hardship certainly can't account on its own for this year's 53% rise in financial fraud, there's little doubt that it's a major factor contributing to the readiness of people to believe what online con artists send to their inboxes.

Indeed, more than 1.5 million households are living in "extreme debt" and more than eight million adults are struggling with "problem debt".

It's in precisely this context that online scams thrive, taking advantage of millions of people who've been squeezed by growing living expenses and the biggest drop in wages among the world's richest countries since the financial crisis.

Because of such factors, it's not only campaigns advising people to think about their online activity or a strengthening of cyber security that's needed. It's also a revitalisation of the British economy and an improvement in the living standards of millions of people.

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