The time I almost got scammed from my college email

Bella Mauricio 13 Dec 2021

A reminder to read your emails with a critical eye

As a 20-year-old college student, I was always looking to make fast cash. During my junior year of college, the holiday season was upon us and my part-time job was barely covering the fee to fill up my gas tank. As I looked through my school email, I saw the subject line “Want to make $300 a week?” As a big cha-ching went off in my head, I saw this as a perfect opportunity and clicked on the email to learn more. 

The email described how you could earn up to an additional $300 a week by being a secret shopper. I clicked on the link, and it took me to a website. It asked me to fill in my: email, first and last name, location, and types of stores I would want to go to, like clothes, electronics, or hardware.

Later that week, I got an email from this random address giving me detailed directions of my next steps:

  1. As soon as you receive the $2,000 dollar check via mail, deposit it immediately. 
  2. Go to Best Buy and ask for three $500 gift cards.
  3. Once completed, send us pictures of the barcode on the back of the gift cards.
  4. You will pocket the $500.

Once I received the check, I drove to Wells Fargo and beamed at seeing that much money in my account. I then drove to my local Best Buy, but I suddenly got really nervous. Maybe deep down I knew something was fishy, but the idea of making $300 overcame any gut feeling I was having. I walked up to the cashier and asked for three $500 gift cards. He looked up at me, kind of in shock. How could such a young kid be asking for such a high amount?

He looked back down at his screen and said, “Sure.” He went through the process and then said, “Okay, last steps. Because this is such a large amount, I have to ask – are you a secret shopper?” 

Shocked, I thought to myself the gig is up, I have been caught. I looked up at him and I responded cautiously, because I didn’t know if I would be in trouble “Yeahhh… how did you know?”

 “Well, I hate to tell you this, but we have reason to believe you are a part of a scam.”

A flood of embarrassment came over me. “What? How could this be a scam? My school emailed me this job opportunity?”

“Well if you have any debt, you could have been targeted, but for now we are going to cancel this transaction.”

“Okay, thanks,” I said as I walked away, as confused as I was mortified.

Two days later, the check bounced. I was out $2,000 and a $35 bounced check fee. 

How do these scams work?

This particular scam started with my school email. They targeted college students, who are usually starving for money and looking for easy extra cash. The scammers send out mass phishing emails and wait to see who bites the bait. 

Once you respond, you really do the work for them. By providing your address and first and last name, they can mail you a personal check; all you have to do is deposit the fraudulent check. US banks legally have to show the money in your account even if the funds aren’t verified. So that was why the scammers stressed you have to buy these gift cards immediately after, because the bank would later confirm there are no funds to withdraw. Once the scammers have the barcodes to the gift cards, they can go to any machine that will trade gift cards for cash and get the money. That’s how they walk away with the cash – and the victim is left with nothing but a bounced check fee.

What did I learn?

Read your emails with a critical eye. Any “opportunity” that seems too good to be true likely is just that: too good to be real. Here are a few additional steps that you can take to prevent yourself from being scammed.

    1. Be wary of misspelling or poor grammar. Sometimes these scammers are translating from their first language to English. Words are often misspelled or the wrong tense is used. That will always be your first sign.

    2. Even if you trust the platform (school email, work email, cell phone) that doesn’t always mean it can be trusted. Oftentimes, these scammers are just finding public emails, or using public information like first and last name and typing in random emails to see what works. Don’t click on any links or addresses you aren’t familiar with.

    3. Don’t give your personal details to strangers. You wouldn’t do it in person, so why do it on the internet?

It was a tough lesson to learn. My ego is bruised more than anything. But I am thankful for the Best Buy employee who did his job and saved me and my bank account from being scammed. It unfortunately wasn't the last phishing email I have received through my school platform. But, from that day on, I read my emails with a critical eye and report any similar emails. They’re not going to get me again!

Further reading:
4 tips to avoid being phished
6 tried-and-true steps for staying safe online when going back to school

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