Internet Pirates Extorting Thousands of Dollars
from International Teaching Candidates
Here’s How Candidates and Schools Can Learn from Our Experience
by Dr. Linda M. Duevel, Director of International School of Stavanger, Norway
“Over the past several months, the International School of Stavanger, Norway has been challenged with a new and unpleasant phenomenon — being taken “virtual hostage” by internet pirates. We have learned some things along the way that may be of use to other school administrators, but equally importantly to international school teacher candidates.”
“We do not seek sympathy by sharing the story, but rather seek to alert other schools and candidates. Schools may wish to consider how they will react if the same thing happens. The bad news for schools is while we are all vulnerable, there are few safeguards. But the good news for candidates is that by picking up some tips from what we have learned, they can potentially protect themselves from falling into the same trap.”
In February, 2011 the International School of Stavanger started getting some e-mails from candidates applying for non-existent ESL and English teaching jobs. They referred to having seen ads on various “ESL employment” web sites.
When I went onto one of these web sites, sure enough there was a posting for an ESL job at our school starting in May, 2011, which would pay benefits including 1,800 Euro per month and suggesting applicants write to an individual (who really does work here), referring to her as the “Recruitment Manager.” Of course, the job was pure fiction. Probably the silliest part is the idea that we would be paying a Euro-based salary. The Norwegian kroner is the only currency we use for salary payments. (However, that last piece of information is also what has led the police to believe that this mischief had been accomplished not by a disgruntled individual with a possible connection to the school, but was probably was a “phishing” expedition.)
Things evolved when our innocent employee, whose name was being used, started getting e-mail responses from unwitting candidates reacting to the long list of questions that she had supposedly sent them to reply to. At least five fake e-mail addresses had been established by the crooks. The candidates found our employee’s real e-mail address by going onto our website after getting suspicious and got in touch with the school. But too often by the time they did that, they had already sent in their personal information to the fake e-mail addresses.
Another chilling point was to see my own real e-mail address being used in correspondence. Are you aware that from a “smart phone” an e-mail can be sent by someone else that seemingly is coming from your actual e-mail address? They can send, but can’t be responded to—hence the need for the crooks taking out a fake e-mail address and requesting the response to come there. But it is a disquieting experience to see one’s own e-mail address being manipulated for false pretenses.
The next surprise was to learn that our entire website had been cloned. Our website address is www.isstavanger.no. Someone bought the domain name, www.isstavanger.org , then completely copied our website making changes ONLY to the “Employment” section where again, the fake jobs were listed. Whoever it was that made the web site paid extra to have their personal details shielded, so we have no idea on which continent it originated.
The object of the pirates is to extort money from unsuspecting candidates for the non-existent jobs at our school. After answering the questions and sending in personal details including passport copies, the candidates were requested first to send €900 for the first two months’ rent for the “accommodation” our school would ostensibly provide–to be returned at “orientation” and another €470 for a Visa Processing fee. (Remember–this is to a school in a country that does not use the Euro as its currency!) Once that money was received, then they would ask for more, and then more, next for a “national medical card”, next for a local “teaching certificate” and on and on. We know of individuals in Ireland, England and Australia who have sent in money. We know of candidates on every continent except Antarctica who sent in personal documents including university credentials and passport copies. One person called and told us she has sent in €6,500! She told us her husband had questioned her on whether the job could be a fake, but she was quite sure it wasn’t as she had multiple Skype conversations and an interview with me. The “other me” described having a “problem” with the Skype reception and so “my” face couldn’t be seen.
While we know how many teachers have contacted us, we don’t know how many others may be out there packing their bags to move to Norway for “orientation” at the end of May, July, or September — three orientation dates were offered. We are aware that air tickets had been bought by several individuals believing that they had a job here.
All the requests for money came along with a fake “contract” with my “signature” neither of which looked anything like the real thing—but how would the candidate know that?
The money was to be sent to a Western Union address in Spain. “Our finance department in Norway is currently busy so they can’t accept payments from selected candidates at the moment. That is why we have shifted that responsibility to our office in Spain.” Again—this sounds like an implausible answer, but apparently there are enough people out there willing to trust the answers to allow the pirates to earn a living. And, if you go onto Western Union’s website, you can see just how simple it is to become a Western Union agent yourself!
The result has been a huge amount of time sending kindly responses to over 100 “candidates” who contact us in a bewildered, confused and angry state at what has happened when they figure out how to get in touch with the “real ISS.” While they haven’t leveled those emotions at our school, they are understandably upset with themselves for falling for the trick. I’ve found myself responding to stressed out individuals who have now sent along a lot of their personal details and documents to an e-mail address that has nothing to do with us. Not surprisingly, they are concerned that they were duped and have the shadow of identity theft hanging over their heads. And I can only respond to the ones who become skeptical and find out that there may be a problem and get in contact with us. We have no way of knowing how many others are out there that we have not heard from—perhaps they will walk through our door in late May, July or September when they are supposed to arrive for “orientation.”
We Have Traced the Sources of the Scam to 3 Continents…
It used to be that the internet scam e-mails we all have received were so implausible that it was simple to just hit the delete button. What I have learned through this process is the crooks are getting more and more clever. Many of the “candidates” that I have talked to are smart individuals who sincerely thought they were applying for a real job. From my perspective, I can see many red flags—but enough people applied to remind me that what seems apparent is not always the case.
Should we have thought to buy up the domains for “.com, .net, .co.uk and .org” before? No—there are so many combinations that it is a simple thing for someone dishonest to easily come up with a plausible name for any school’s website address. And opening fake e-mail and Skype addresses is a very simple thing. I have suggested to schools that they put a disclaimer on their website “Employment” page warning applicants to beware of potential internet job scams. We have been gratified that some of the providers, including Skype, immediately shut down the fake accounts when we notified them, but new ones can easily be opened. And a number of the “ESL employment” websites have not heeded our requests to remove the fake advertisements.
We have been very pleased at how quickly and how seriously the police and the internet watchdog groups gave advice to our school. But unfortunately, there is not a great deal they can do to stop the problem. In our case, we have traced the sources of the scam to three different continents. While the amount of money sent in to “our Spanish office” is a sizable loss to the “candidates,” in the world of internet crime, the amounts are small enough that the police can’t use their already overloaded resources to track them down. In each of the cases where we know people have sent money in, they reported back to us that when they approached their local police the response was basically, “You sent personal documents and money to an internet scam. We are sorry, but we can’t help you beyond suggesting that you not do it again.”
Why our school? I don’t know, and I doubt that we are the only school being singled out. It has been suggested that we might have been a target because our school is fortunate to enjoy a good reputation and exists in a country that is known for being a great place to live. But in reality, we will probably never know why we were “lucky” enough to become a target.
I have suggested to fellow school heads that if their school notices that it suddenly starts getting applicants for non-existent jobs, rather than just deleting the e-mails, they might do some investigation. After several months of hearing from many “candidates” the number has now quieted down to just a few each week. That is good for us, but just means that the criminals will migrate onto another school where they can set up another scam and try to soak more money out of more unsuspecting applicants.
It is not my aim to malign the reputation of all “ESL” websites—I am sure there are many that provide an excellent service in linking schools with candidates. But we found that once a fake ad was posted on one site, it seemed to magically multiply and be replicated on many other sites. I would like to suggest to those individuals running those sites that they do a better job in checking the validity of the openings that are posted, but I also recognize that this is easier said than done.
Here are Some Specific Suggestions I Have for Candidates
Do your own independent research with a much more critical eye. Anyone who had done an internet search on our school’s name would have come up with our real website, not the fake one the crooks were providing. Just copying a website address that is listed in an e-mail doesn’t give a candidate any reliability. How hard it is to type a school’s name on a Google search?
We have all become too trusting that what we read online has an absolute connection to reality. Pay attention to red flags. If an e-mail from a potential “employer” states, “DO NOT CALL THE SCHOOL,” in all caps, (as it did in our case), don’t be afraid to question that. The “candidates” who ignored that directive and tracked down our phone number off our real website, (or from any of the many other sources where our school’s details are listed), are also the candidates who saved themselves the aggravation of losing money or identity theft.
Schools pay their employees—they don’t ask their potential employees to send them money! And schools certainly don’t ask potential employees to send money to a Western Union postbox in another country! (And I don’t mean to malign the reputation of Western Union—I view them as a victim in this scam as well.)
Skype is a great and handy tool for both schools and candidates to interview. But really, how can you be sure that the person you are talking to is the genuine head of the school? Or for that matter, for the head to know the person they are interviewing is who they say they are? It has probably happened to all of us at one time that a Skype conversation was conducted without a visual of the other person being available. But rather than accepting that in a job interview, perhaps the wiser thing to do is to suggest that the technology gets rebooted and start fresh. (And by the way, the “other Linda Duevel” apparently described herself as being a Norwegian citizen who was married to a British citizen. “She” speaks quite good non-native English, with only a trace of an accent. It wouldn’t have taken Sherlock Holmes to find out that none of those three points were accurate.)
In the case of the scam with our school, the crooks lifted the name of an innocent actual office employee from our website, presumably to make it all appear more credible. A phone call to the school to verify the validity of the posted job is a wise move to consider. It is not an imposition to the school—or, if it is, do you really want to contemplate working for that school? The switchboard operator or receptionist who answers the phone in virtually any international school will be able to tell you if the school has jobs posted—or can connect you to someone who can verify that fact.
I recommend taking a look at a press release on the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation website: http://www.gatesfoundation.org/press-releases/Pages/email-scams.aspx They were also plagued by similar scams and have some very useful suggestions on this press release.
Be very reticent about sending personal documents via the internet. Be absolutely certain that the individual you are corresponding with is indeed representing the school.
While it is not my intention to give the impression that the only way to get a good job at a good school is to attend a job fair, it is worth mentioning that they do provide an antidote to this issue. Another way to look at it is to encourage candidates to check in with any of the recruiting fair organizers or any of the multitude of membership organizations that most international schools are connected with. If you are having trouble tracking down telephone and real website details, they, or their online membership directories, will be able to assist you.
If you have found yourself the victim of internet fraud, don’t be afraid to share that information. There is strength in numbers. I’m sharing this information because I want to see that no one else—candidate or school—gets victimized. Your story could assist someone else as well.
In our case, the fake contracts copied graphic details from our real website to make the documents appear more official. Our real contracts don’t look anything like what was sent. If you find yourself holding a contract that looks graphically very similar to a potentially cloned website, be very suspicious.
Remember the old adage: If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Be wary!