As many as 90 University of Washington students from China may have been defrauded of up to $1 million in tuition money, UW Police Department investigators say.
As many as 90 University of Washington students from China may have been defrauded of up to $1 million in tuition money, UW Police Department investigators said Monday.
The Chinese students, all studying at the UW in Seattle this summer, were told they could save 5 percent — about $600 — off the $11,340 cost of summer tuition by paying an intermediary, said UW Police investigator Lt. Doug Schulz.
The investigation is ongoing and no arrests have been made, Schulz said.
In an interview Monday, several students said a UW student from China who was well-known in the community spread word of the deal through a popular Chinese social-media app called WeChat. Because the student was active in UW student clubs for a number of years, she was widely trusted, said George Zhou, a sophomore math major.
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Although Zhou hasn’t heard from the UW yet — not all students who paid the intermediary have been contacted — he believes he was scammed. Now he’ll likely have to pay summer tuition all over again, he said.
The scam started to unravel last month when a New York detective contacted the UW about stolen credit-card numbers from that state being used to pay summer tuition. One card was used to charge about $25,000 in UW tuition payments, Schulz said.
Schulz said it is not clear yet how many people were involved in the scheme. He said investigators believe some students were duped into spreading word of the payment arrangement without knowing it was fraudulent.
Schulz said the students were asked by the scammers to give their UW ID and password, used to get access to the student’s account. The people running the scheme apparently used stolen credit-card numbers to pay a tuition bill, which generated a confirmation from the university that it had been paid. The student then would give the schemers a check or wire them money.
At least 19 students are confirmed to have been defrauded, Schulz said, for a total of $190,000. But there could be as many as 90 victims, according to information gathered by the UW’s student fiscal services office, which is helping detectives unravel the scheme. That would mean scammers collected more than $1 million from the students.
Jessie Chen, an assistant with Pike International Education Service — a Seattle agency that helps international students — said the group has heard that some students also paid rent and utilities through the scheme, believing they could save 5 percent on those transactions, too. And community-college students also may be involved. “It’s very upsetting for the entire community,” Chen said.
Nelson Lee, a Seattle lawyer who is helping the students pro bono, said the scheme was clever because “a 5 percent cut is not that outlandish. Five percent has a ring of truth to it.”
He has asked the U.S. Attorney’s Office for help, and said he believes federal investigators should be involved because the case may include wire fraud and could be widespread.
The UW has contacted the FBI, Schulz said.
Amanda He, a UW sophomore, said she wasn’t pulled into the payment scheme — she paid her tuition before she heard about the so-called discount — but many friends have reached out to her to help spread the word.
“We definitely want to warn people,” she said.
He said many Chinese students are from working-class families, and are already struggling to pay nonresident tuition, which is three times as much as in-state tuition. The scheme has hit those students especially hard, she said.
Schulz said some students were able to stop payments on the checks and get their money back. “The rest, only time will tell,” he said.
He advised students to never hand over their UW identification or password to a stranger. And, he said, students should be suspicious of anything that sounds too good to be true.