By Julie Zigoris
A surge of suspicious applications has flooded the California Community College system, with up to 65,000 fraudulent applications statewide from 77 countries, according to a Board of Trustees presentation at San Joaquin Delta College in Stockton.
The extent of the fraud suggests that City College may be vulnerable, though administrators did not respond to numerous requests about the problem.
The issue has overwhelmed instructors and administrators and, in some cases, kept real-life students from being able to enroll in courses. For Tara Cuslidge-Staiano, a journalism professor at San Joaquin Delta College in Stockton, the situation was overwhelming. Her “Writing for Digital Media” course inflated to 85 students — then went down to just 14 after rooting out the bots.
Cuslidge-Staiano first became suspicious when she noticed a surge in registration all at once. “Typically enrollment is a random pattern,” she noted, but this summer she had a wave of students register at once, with the highest number on August 11. “We constantly monitor our rosters,” she said.
Other suspicious activity included students with all-capitalized names,no course history, and who enrolled in classes that didn’t align with a guided pathway. Unlike at other campuses, the “ghost students” in Cuslidge-Staiano’s courses participated in course discussions, albeit with bizarre statements like “I’m doing this for my distant near future self.” Her colleague Adriana Brogger noticed similar red flags when she began correcting her discussion posts, seeing comments like “I’m from Stockton, CA, America.”
According to Mark Johnson, the executive director of the department of marketing, communications, and public relations at Peralta College, the “ghost student” phenomenon represents two types of fraud. “Fraud at the enrollment and application stage is to get money,” he said, whereas “fraud at CCCApply is used to obtain a ‘dot edu’ email address, which has value as that credential can be used to obtain free or greatly discounted products and services.”
Given that all 116 of the California Community Colleges use the CCCApply system, City College is also vulnerable to such attacks. Director of External Affairs at CCSF Jeff Hamilton declined to comment on if and how much CCSF was impacted by the scam.
Associate Vice Chancellor of Los Rios Community College Gabe Ross noted that “fraudulent applications have been a problem for some time in California Community colleges,” with the goal often being to get a ‘dot edu’ email address and the benefits that incurs.
Community colleges are particularly vulnerable, Ross acknowledged, because unlike four-year schools they grant student email addresses at the time of application and not at the time of payment and registration. “Given it’s free to apply, this has long been a problem,” Ross said. With the rise of online classes and the “significant amount of new financial aid resources available,” scammers have more recently tried to gain access to federal or state financial aid funds, according to Ross.
On YouTube a creator named “Targetter” reviews the perks of a ‘dot edu’ email address (free software, Spotify benefits, Macbook discounts, deals on Amazon) before he demonstrates how to set up a fraudulent community college account. “It’s all automated,” he said on the video as fake demographic information autofilled the application, “and all I have to do is just sit back and relax.” The YouTuber enrolled on screen at Contra Costa College as “Ivan N. Atkinson” — with City College another one of the schools he could have selected.
For community colleges already struggling with enrollment in light of the pandemic, it’s emotionally taxing to see full rosters that ended up being “ghosts.” “As an educator, it stings,” Cuslidge-Staiano said, adding, “ghosts can’t show up on campus.”
It’s also an immense amount of work. Cuslidge-Staiano, who is also curricular chair for her department, spent hours examining suspicious activity, reading through comments, and adjusting course sections. “It paralyzed me last week,” Staiano said.
The impact has been widespread, with 105 out of the 116 campuses in the California Community Colleges affected, according to the Los Angeles Times. The wide scope of the fraud scheme implies that City College has likely been impacted, but Interim Chancellor Dianna Gonzales and Director of Media Relations Rosie Zepeda did not return requests for comments. They also declined to discuss whether City College is taking steps to prevent such fraud.
While Breitler couldn’t comment in-depth in terms of financial aid impact due to the ongoing nature of the investigation, he did note that communication had been sent to students not to share personal information with others, even in a study group setting.
The memo to students also recommended not to click on “spam emails or untrusted websites” and to use only student email and Microsoft Teams for study groups.
Colleges remain in “close communication” with another, Breitler noted, about strategies for avoiding such kinds of scams in the future.
San Joaquin Delta College has set up a new cybersecurity reporting form for faculty members to report anything suspicious, according to Alex Breitler, director of marketing, communications, and outreach at the school. Vice Chancellor Ross said at Los Rios there is “a robust daily process in place that identifies enrollments that may be fraudulent and, after a verification process, we quickly disenroll them and shut down access to all district and college services.”
Peralta’s IT Department has put filters in place to stop the fraud, according to Johnson. The school believes those filters are catching all fraudulent applications, but they continue to monitor the situation closely.
The school was able to reverse $4,800 in fraudulent disbursements for the summer semester, according to a June 22 Chancellor’s memo to the Board of Trustees. “The false applicants are done in large batches and can bypass the CCCApply system and are thus sent to the districts as complete,” the memo noted.
“It’s taking a lot of time away from other priorities like serving real students so it’s an unfortunate situation,” Johnson said.