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Criminal impersonates UW-Milwaukee professor to target student in fake job scheme

Posted at 5:52 AM, Oct 26, 2020
and last updated 2020-10-26 10:23:37-04

MILWAUKEE — A remote job with minimal hours and good pay sounds ideal for anyone looking for work right now. But a Milwaukee college student learned the hard way when something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

TMJ4 News interviewed a UW-Milwaukee senior who says she fell victim to a job fake job scheme in February of 2019.

She didn't want to reveal her name or show her face on video but agreed to an interview so she could warn others searching for remote work during the pandemic.

The student said it started with a message on LinkedIn from a stranger that said: "We are excited to offer you this opportunity to be a virtual office assistant."

The recruiter told the student she would be paid between $400 and 600 dollars a week for about 10 to 12 hours worth of work.

"I was like OK, great. That sounds fantastic," the student said.

She then started texting with who she thought was the person hiring an assistant.

"What was the person's name?" TMJ4 News reporter Kristin Byrne asked the student.

"The person on the text messages was claiming to be Professor Alexander Timmer and he's in the School of Architecture," she continued.

TMJ4 News confirmed Alexander is indeed a faculty member at UW-Milwaukee.

But, this college student later learned, the impersonation of Alexander was all part of a scheme to steal her money. She explained the person asked her to price out the cost of a computer, scanner, and printer needed for the job.

"He said well just send me screenshots of listings on like eBay or Walmart or something and I will reimburse you. I'll send you a check," she said.

"So, I sent all of these prices and everything added up to be almost $3,000."

The check arrived. She deposited it, and this happened.

"Obviously the check bounced. I was out $3,000," she said.

Often, if a check bounces, the cost is required to be covered by the individual who deposited the check.

Lisa Schiller with the Better Business Bureau says nationwide reports of employment scams targeting college students increased 25 percent from last year.

"So, a lot of college students have told us they have received emails from what looks like their university's domain or even a professor," Schiller said.

She said criminals are hoping you buy work supplies or in some cases gift cards before the fake check bounces and then ship some of those purchases to them. Schiller said it's a red flag if an employer hires you without an interview, sends you a check to deposit before you've done any work or if there are any typos and grammatical errors in their emails or texts.

The UW-Milwaukee student TMJ4 News interviewed ended up finding a legitimate job.

"If you don't know directly the person that's messaging you, you don't have any mutual friends or contacts or anything, it's probably too good to be true," she said.

She encouraged anyone who suspects they have fallen for fraud, to report it to the BBB's Scamtracker website.

TMJ4 News reached out to UW-Milwaukee for the story. The college was aware of this scheme. A spokesperson provided the below statement:

The scam that you inquired about was part of a series of phishing scams that we have seen targeting UWM students with fake job offers that eventually lead to theft and harassment. Other universities are experiencing the same thing.

In this case, nine students contacted UWM or Prof. Alex Timmer about the emails. Prof. Timmer reported each incident that he was contacted about to UWM's information security office, following UWM's protocol.

The incidents happened between March 8, 2019, and Dec. 14, 2019. Scammers used Google accounts to "spoof" legitimate email accounts. At that time, UWM's practice when notified of a phishing email was to block the sender from sending further emails and to try to purge the phishing emails from campus inboxes. Such scammers often set up new Gmail addresses, and UWM can't control that.

UWM's information security office has invested in new email technology that now allows it to:

*often alert our students, faculty, and staff when someone is "spoofing" a regular contact

*more easily find and delete phishing emails

*systemically notify students when evidence of a scam is found and advise them on further actions

The information security office also has increased communication about the dangers of this type of phishing, with regular emails to students and employees and material added to the university's job placement website as well as an IT site.

We urge students and others to exercise extreme caution anytime they receive unsolicited job offers sent via email as most are not legitimate. Students and UWM employees should report such emails to abuse@uwm.edu. -- Michelle Johnson, Sr. Director of Integrated Marketing & Communications, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

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