By Victoria Modenesi, Social Media Director
Last Friday was a day like any other. I was at the Office of Student Involvement on the third floor of the Millennium Student Center. Since I was working, my phone was in my purse, silent. Bzz Bzz. It would not stop. Someone was trying to contact me and adamantly kept calling. I decided to pick up.
As you may have figured out already from the not-so-clever and quite disclosing title of this article, picking up was a grave mistake–not only because I should not have been using my phone, but because “Officer Johnson” was going to tell me in 10 seconds that I had not paid a required educational tax, and so a legal procedure against me was underway. You probably think that this could never happen to you, or that if it did, you would never be naive enough to believe it. But, why not? The number displayed on your phone is the same as the Missouri Department of Revenue located in Jefferson City, and as they are telling you your arrest is imminent, you get a call from 911. Maybe then, even though you thought this would never happen, you start to sweat and freak out a bit.
Believe me, I tried to stay as focused as I could and started questioning back. I had never been summoned to court, and had filed my tax return during tax season, even though there were no taxes I needed to pay. But from the other end of the line, they were still trying to hold down the fort and convince me that I had not paid something which was mandatory; they even told me that my enrollment at the University of Missouri-St. Louis was going to be cancelled. At that point, since one of my coworkers came into the office and I no longer knew what to say, I mumbled that there was an emergency and that I had to run to the International Student & Scholar Center (ISS) downstairs.
If you are an international student, you know the ISS very well; basically, they are the ones who take care of your visa processing and let you know if there is anything special you need to do or know while you are in school.
I was pacing fast down the hallway as I told myself, “Don’t panic, they can help you.” I accidentally hung up on the scammers. As I entered the office, Erika Feckova, office support staff II, was there, smiling, greeting me by name. I am still in awe as I write about this, because this person had not seen my face since Spring orientation, and yet she still remembered my face and my name. Feckova very calmly explained to me that what had just happened to me was a scam and helped me calm down. I cried, I took deep breaths, I apologized, I got it together. As this was going on, another person at the front desk announced that she had contacted my advisor, and two minutes later, Rebecca Kehe, international student advisor, appeared. I sat down with her and got a “Taxes and IRS 101” course in fifteen minutes. I asked numerous questions, and she made sure that I got my answers and that a complaint was filed to the Missouri Department of Revenue.
The fact is, I had taken a course on tax returns, but I had no idea how the United States government contacts its citizens, or what the consequences are for not filing your tax return, paying your taxes, etc. If you are an international student and do not know much about this, or maybe if you have just started dealing with taxes and tax returns and would like to have more information about it, you should know that no one from the government will ever contact you in any way but by paper. If there is anything you need to be informed of, you will find it in your mail. And, unless you have avoided paying your taxes AND have been notified several times (but never responded or amended your mistakes), there will not be an arrest warrant in your name regarding taxes.
Unfortunately, there are many of us who did not know this. I must admit, I might have gotten an ISS email about this but disregarded it, thinking I was smart enough to not get caught; or I might have just read it too fast to even remember. However, I was caught off guard, and you could be too. Some other students have been contacted by fake State Revenue officers too; it was stated that mainly Asian and Latin American students are being targeted. In order to spot scammers, you need to know some basics.
First, scammers have hacked into the Missouri government database, obtaining crucial and very personal information (yes, they did have my address in Argentina and knew my full name). Additionally, you could be contacted through official phone numbers, such as those from the Missouri Department of Revenue (573-751-4450); the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, Budget Division (573-751-3501); or you might even get a call from 911. Yes, I know, it sounds impossible, but this time, scammers have outdone themselves. You may also be contacted via email, but you need to remember that official government email addresses contain “.gov” in them. There are certain types of procedures to follow to pay back taxes, and these by no means include sending prepaid cards or gift cards (as was reported by some students).
More information can be obtained from dor.mo.gov and also from the ISS office. But most important, you need to know that ISS is your go-to place if you have questions of any kind about your studies and stay in the U.S. It is crucial to remember that we, international students, are in a different country, maybe speaking a different language from our native one, and soaking into a different culture; and that takes time and effort. At the same time, it is important to bear in mind that we can run into scammers who will try to deceive us, or supporters who will help us to overcome difficulties.
Last Friday was just another day, until it was not anymore. Thankfully, I was on campus and could reach the ISS office pretty quickly and feel at ease. Visit ISS more frequently. Go there to get answers to the questions you have, but also to find the comfort and support of people who are understanding of your needs and doubts. How much did I learn last Friday? A lot. Above all, I learned to raise my hand and ask for help when I need it. I also learned that there are people here (besides friends, classmates, advisers, teachers) who are predisposed to make my UMSL experience trouble-free and who have my (and others’) back.
Special thanks to Feckova, who was comforting and straightforward, and Kehe, who taught me badass tactics and arguments to deal with scammers.
For more information from the Missouri Department of Revenue: http://dor.mo.gov/news/newsitem/uuid/3088ca01-afe1-448e-8ea8-5f2754271201
To contact the International Student and Scholar Services Office: MSC 261, 314-516-5229, or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org