By Tiffany Ran
Northwest Asian Weekly
Kevin Yin began receiving inquiries from several University of Washington (UW) students in May about whether an ad offering a 5 percent discount off their tuition was legitimate. Yin, the marketing director of Pike International Education Service recalls seeing the same ad on the popular social media app, WeChat.
He reached out to the girl, going by “FY” on WeChat, who posted the ad and asked if such a discount was possible. How is the process done? “Online payment,” she replied. With who’s card? “My brother’s,” she answered.
The answers sounded suspect to Yin, who advised the students not to risk it for the sake of saving a little money. Justin, who wishes to go only by his first name, is a third-year mechanical engineering student at the UW from China’s Hebei province. He received the same ad from FY on WeChat on May 17. Having known FY as a trusted and well-respected student leader at the UW, he decided to seek out her offer and save on his tuition for summer classes.
The ad, which went out and was subsequently shared with many students in a WeChat group specific to Chinese international students, was discovered by many to be a scam. Authorities believe over $1 million was taken from UW students.
Spread like wildfire
“In my over 21 years here, I’ve never seen a scheme take off and spread so quickly in our UW community,” said UW Police Department (UWPD) Interim Maj. Craig Wilson.
News of the 5 percent discount and the subsequent effects of the alleged scam spread throughout the Chinese international student community as the UWPD fielded more calls from distressed students.
“Within a day, I immediately got the sense that this is wider than just Seattle. It’s probably spread throughout Washington. It’s a case dealing with international students that involves over $1 million, money going overseas, money laundering, and wire fraud,” said Nelson Lee, an attorney and founding partner of Lee & Lee PS, who is representing the student victims pro bono.
The UWPD has requested the help of the FBI to investigate the alleged scam which, since last week, is estimated to involve over 90 students with 19 confirmed victims. Lee, Yin, and community advocates like Alan Lai of Chinese Information and Service Center (CISC) are working together to encourage victims to come forward and work with law enforcement and the FBI in their investigation. They are offering translation assistance, explanation of legal processes, and support for students who are afraid of telling their parents or speaking with law enforcement.
Suspects behind the scheme accessed students accounts through their UW student net ID and password, and used invalid or stolen credits cards to pay the tuition. They printed out a confirmation of payment for students, leaving the students to find out only after processing that the tuition remained unpaid.
A growing web of FYs
Justin made out a check for $11,122 and handed it off to a friend of FY. He would soon receive a call that his tuition had not been paid. Initially, he thought it was a mistake, but after confirming with the UW cashier, he realized he had been deceived. When he asked the friend of FY who took the check, the friend claimed not to know anything about the money or where it went, saying she was doing it as a favor to a friend. But the signs were there, Justin realized. This supposed good friend of FY, he remembered, had not paid her tuition using the discount. If they were such close friends, he thought, wouldn’t the discount have been made available to her first before anyone else?
As news broke about the scam, a student reached out to Yin anonymously on WeChat, explaining that he agreed to exchange money with FY to help her avoid banking fees. FY gave him a bunch of checks, he explained to Yin. He wasn’t aware of where the checks were from, he cashed them and wired the money to her account in China. He saw this case on the news and expressed concerns about his involvement. Yin encouraged him to come forward, but the anonymous student has since ceased contact.
Many students attributed the source of the ad and their knowledge of the scheme to FY, but UWPD has not named a suspect in the case. It is unknown how many suspects are truly involved and whether some students may have unknowingly promoted the offer or taken part in the scheme without understanding the nature of their actions.
“We don’t know how far this goes. We have to follow the money. We don’t know if the people who are part of the web are complicit,” said Wilson.
“Arguably, she could be the head, or just another piece in a bigger organization,” said Lee. “I’m more skeptical. I don’t think she can truly say that she had no idea what was going on. I think it’s telling that she didn’t go pick up the money, she sent friends. That to me shows another level of depravity because you’re involved in a criminal enterprise and you send out your unsuspecting friends [to pick up money]. You entangle more people. You victimize more people.”
“If you look at her reaction when people started contacting her [asking about their tuition], she was defensive or now, just completely gone silent. Her boyfriend who has been sending veiled threats to some of these people, that’s also not a response from someone who is truly innocent and just as upset,” Lee adds.
FY, a recent UW graduate, represented herself to students as one of the founders of Husky Help Organization, a registered nonprofit at the UW dedicated to helping international students, particularly those from China, to adjust to their new environment. Her accomplishments, popularity, and leadership drew many students, including Justin, to trust her word.
Defrauded by our own
“Living in a foreign country alone is already not easy for us. And being defrauded by one of our own students just makes everything much worse. I am a person who trusts people easily. It’s not that I’m not careful, but if I feel a person can be trusted, I’ll fully trust. I guess I’m wrong this time. I just couldn’t imagine how a former UW student who was popular in the Chinese international group can do such things,” said Justin.
“The people who conducted this scam to so many people know our situation. They know exactly how hard it is for us to come here. They know how much our family had to work to give us a chance to come here and study in the U.S. in hopes of a better life. That’s why I’m really angry about what has happened,” said Amanda He, a UW sophomore and Chinese international student. She was not a victim of the scheme having paid her tuition before she heard about the proposed discount.
The challenges ahead lie in the nature of the case, Lee explains. Unlike a murder, assault, or robbery, where immediate arrests can be made, financial cases take time to go through bank and money records in order to build a case. He cautions students that the possibility of getting their money back will not happen soon if at all, but students with delinquent tuition payments may risk losing their F-1 student visa status.
For many advocates facing this unique case for the first time, the priority is to support and encourage victims to step forward and cooperate with law enforcement. Secondly, to help students facing the immediate ramifications of losing their tuition.
Yin mentions that some students hoping to avoid scolding and shame from their families, but in dire need to make up the funds, are borrowing from friends and repaying a little at a time. Lee and other advocates have discussed trying to raise money for victims who are struggling, but admit that increasing hostility against Chinese international students make it difficult.
“I know the stereotypes about the international students from UW, about how we are from wealthy and rich families and we don’t have to worry about money, but that’s not really the case. A lot of us are from working class families and our parents have to work for our tuition money,” said He.
Currently, there is no known statement from the UW regarding how it plans to address delinquent payments from victims of the scheme. Lee and other advocates believe, with news of a similar scheme happening at other local campuses, this is not isolated to the UW campus. The precedent set by this case could cause schools to carry the burden of better educating international students, suggests Lee.
“If you’re soliciting international students to come, you have an obligation to help them acclimate to our country beyond just the classroom and saying, ‘This is Seattle and it’s beautiful,” said Lee, who thinks schools should eventually offer an “Intro to the U.S.” program that teaches students how not to get scammed, briefs them on legal issues that could compromise their student visas, and runs through some basic “what not to do’s.”
It’s a reasonable suggestion that strangely echoes the same needs that the Husky Help Organization had hoped to address upon its founding. Today, much of its members and community remain confused, angry, and bewildered.
Students affected by the scheme may contact UW Student Fiscal Services at 206-543-4694 with questions or concerns.
Anyone with information about this case is encouraged to report the information to UWPD and Det. Zachary Rockseth (206) 221-4318.
Tiffany Ran can be reached at email@example.com.