Avoiding Scams

Please be aware of some common scams that have been known to affect members of the UC Berkeley campus community. These schemes can take many forms with various levels of sophistication, but in every case the suspect is trying to get money or valuable information by manipulating another person’s fears, hopes, trusting nature or sense of generosity. Some suspects specifically target persons within the campus community to take advantage of predictable vulnerabilities and behaviors.

Reporting these types of scams to authorities may help direct attention and resources to understanding and combating the problem, but you should also be aware it can be difficult to identify and hold accountable the suspects in any specific incident, and to recover any money or information that was taken. Learning to recognize and avoid these scams may be the most effective way to fight this kind of crime.

Housing scams

In this type of scam, the suspect creates a false advertisement for a housing opportunity and distributes it on the Internet, in print or even by listing it with a bona-fide housing service. The property in question typically does not exist or is owned by someone else and the suspect uses information and photos from some other source to create the ad. The offer might appear to be a particularly good deal compared to the typical cost of housing in the area.

The suspect frequently requires up-front payment of rent, deposit, and/or other significant fees, often before any showing of the property or signing any contract. They often claim to be unable to meet the victim in person, and might request payment via wire transfer or some other unusual method (such as pre-paid debit cards, gift cards, cryptocurrency or another way that is difficult to trace). In some cases, fake contracts may be presented. Housing scam suspects often prey upon persons who are moving from out of the area or who are unfamiliar with standard real estate procedures.

Check cashing / Counterfeit items scams

In this type of scam, the suspect tries to convince the victim to give them money or valuables in exchange for a fake check, counterfeit item or even just the promise of a future re-payment. After making the exchange the victim learns that the check is fraudulent, the item is fake or that the promise will not be kept.

One variation of this scam is a “work at home” opportunity or a sweepstakes prize, in which the victim is told to cash checks into their own account and then send a portion of that money to the suspect. Suspects also target persons who have listed items for sale online and pay via check, sometimes over the asking amount and requesting a refund for the difference. Other suspects might simply approach victims in person and ask them for help cashing a check at a nearby bank or store. When the check later bounces, the victim is out the money they gave to the suspect.

Suspects also approach victims in the street or online and present what appears to be a valuable, rare or expensive item (electronics, jewelry, printer ink) for sale at an appealing price. The suspect might tell a compelling story about why the price is so low. A second suspect could be working with the first, pretending to be a random person interested in the deal, which may help make the victim think the offer is credible. If a purchase is made the victim will later find the item is fake or has been switched for an empty container.

Identity theft / account access scams

In this type of scam, the suspect usually contacts victims via telephone, text or email and pretends to be an official representative for a bank, retailer, employer, government agency or internet service provider. They might even create a fake but realistic website for you to visit. The suspect often tries to convince you that you have been the victim of theft, fraud or some other danger exists and you must act quickly to stop the problem from getting worse. Alternatively the suspect might claim you are unexpectedly and temporarily eligible for a large sum of money (perhaps in the form of a prize, inheritance, disbursement or refund). In either case, the suspect is actually trying to get information from you that will enable them to commit theft or fraud.

The suspect, who could already have some information about you (likely from an old data breach) to make you think they are legitimate, will ask for additional personal and security information such as your date of birth, account number, password, PIN, etc. In some cases, the suspect advises they will send you a text message or e-mail with a code for you to provide to them, but in reality they are attempting to reset one of your accounts - if you provide the suspect with that code, they will be able to set a new password and take control of your account.

Government official impersonation scams

In this type of scam, the suspect typically contacts victims by telephone or e-mail and pretends to be a police officer, federal agent or some other government official (possibly from another country where the victim might be a citizen). The suspect claims the victim has an arrest warrant, unpaid taxes or some other legal problem. In some cases, the suspect has personal information about the victim (likely from an old Internet data breach) and even “spoofs” their caller ID or e-mail so it appears they are contacting you from a legitimate number or address.

The suspect demands immediate payment from the victim to fix the problem, often via wire transfer or some other unusual method (such as pre-paid debit cards, gift cards, cryptocurrency or another way that is difficult to trace). The suspect is hoping you are not aware that real government officials never demand payment in this manner, and persons who are less familiar with these processes are particularly vulnerable to this scam.

In an alternate version of this scam, the suspect may pretend to be a police officer or official representative of a charity, collecting donations for what sounds like a worthy cause.

Photo/video privacy extortion scams

In this type of scam, the suspect uses social media, a dating website or a messaging app to find potential victims and gather their personal information. The suspect initiates a conversation that leads to a request to share nude or sexually explicit photos or video (the suspect might also participate, and often asks for the victim’s face to be visible). The suspect saves any images that the victim shares and then threatens to send the images to the victim’s family, friends and other contacts unless the victim pays the suspect money.

A similar scam - usually a hoax - involves an email from someone claiming to have accessed your computer remotely and captured nude images of you while you were visiting a pornographic website. The suspect might even include a password or other personal information of yours (likely from an old data breach) to convince you the threat is real. The suspect threatens to share the alleged images with others if you do not pay.

If any nude images of you are posted, try to delete them or contact the site where they are posted to have them removed. You could also create a search engine alert to scan for any posted images so you can try to have them deleted. Due to the immediate stress and anxiety this situation is likely to cause, please consider reaching out to a confidential resource for support and help in considering your options:

PATH to Care Center
     https://care.berkeley.edu/
     (510) 643-2005 for urgent support or (510) 642-1988 for routine appointments
     Confidential support and assistance for those impacted by sexual violence and harassment

Advice on avoiding & handling scams

  • Be cautious when presented with offers that seem too good to be true. Recognize that scammers often try to cause their victims to feel anxiety, excitement and/or a sense of urgency to prevent them from thinking clearly.
  • Avoid sharing your telephone number, e-mail address and other contact information or personal and security information with persons whom you do not know or trust.
  • Use strong passwords to protect all your various Internet-based accounts, and employ two-step verification or other additional security features if available. Update your passwords regularly and use different passwords for different services.
  • Keep your social media and app settings as private as possible and carefully evaluate unexpected requests and messages. Sharing identifiable nude pictures or videos of yourself is strongly discouraged, especially with persons you do not know well.
  • Consider reporting Internet-based scam attempts and inappropriate activity to the administrator of the website, social media platform, or Internet service provider. Block or restrict the suspect’s access to your social media and other accounts to whatever degree this is possible. Consider changing your profile names, photos and other public-facing information.
  • If you think someone might be trying to scam you, don’t ignore that concern. Ask questions without revealing additional information about yourself. You can also try to verify the person’s claims, but look up and contact their organization yourself rather than relying on any telephone number or website address they might provide.
  • Be aware that legitimate government officials do not solicit payment to prevent arrest. If you actually owe taxes, have a warrant or face some other legal liability, the government must follow a routine procedure which allows you an opportunity to review and appeal the claim.

If you have fallen victim to a scam, cease all contact with the suspect and preserve any information you might have (messages, identifying information, images, paperwork, etc.) in case you decide to file a police report.

Even if you are the subject of threats or extortion, do not make any payments to the suspect and end the communication immediately. If you make a payment the suspect will likely continue to demand additional money.

How to report

To report a crime, notify the law enforcement agency with jurisdiction in the location where you were when you were contacted by the suspect. If you were on UC Berkeley property please call (510-642-6760) or visit UCPD (1 Sproul Hall, UC Berkeley) 24 hours a day, seven days a week to report a crime. An officer will be assigned to collect your information and gather any evidence that might be available. The officer’s report will be reviewed to determine if any further investigation might be appropriate and effective.

IN AN EMERGENCY, DIAL 911

For emergencies on campus, or to use a TTY, you can also call (510) 642-3333.

Additional resources

For campus support:

PATH to Care Center
https://care.berkeley.edu/
(510) 643-2005 for urgent support or (510) 642-1988 for routine appointments
Confidential support and assistance for those impacted by sexual violence and harassment

Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS)
https://uhs.berkeley.edu/caps
2222 Bancroft Way (Tang Center), (510) 642-9494
Confidential counseling for UC Berkeley students with academic, career and personal concerns

Be Well at Work – Employee Assistance Counseling
https://uhs.berkeley.edu/bewellatwork
2222 Bancroft Way (Tang Center), Suite 3100, (510) 643-7754
Confidential counseling and referrals for UC Berkeley faculty and staff

UC Berkeley Information Security and Policy
https://security.berkeley.edu
(510) 664-9000
Data and systems privacy and security policies, advice and alerts

For more information about scams:

If you have concerns about possible identity theft: