The type of fake-student scams designed to siphon off federal aid and pandemic relief money under scrutiny at California’s Community College system is now being investigated nationwide, federal officials said late Thursday.
The U.S. Department of Education “is working with law enforcement partners and postsecondary institutions to stop the suspected financial aid fraud,” Federal Student Aid Chief Operating Officer Richard Cordray said in a statement.
“Financial aid administrators at thousands of institutions across the country” have been notified to take action, he said. The law enforcement agencies were not identified.
Cordray’s announcement came as the Golden State’s system of community colleges is reeling from revelations that tens of thousands of fraudulent admissions applications submitted by bots made their way through a porous central system that requires little identifying information about prospective students.
The scope of the scandal in California is still not known.
“We don’t yet know how many colleges have been affected,” Paul Feist, a spokesman for acting Community Colleges Chancellor Daisy Gonzales said late Thursday.
“We are still investigating the extent of the problem. Unfortunately, the limitations of our current technology infrastructure do not provide real-time access to campus-level data, including enrollment or suspected fraud,” Feist said.
College officials found last month that about 20% of traffic to the central application portal that feeds applications to the colleges was “malicious and bot-related,” Valerie Lundy-Wagner, interim vice chancellor of digital innovation and infrastructure for the system, wrote in an Aug. 30 memo released by the chancellor’s office.
Roughly 65,000 fake applications were found across California’s 115 in-person community colleges operated by 73 local districts, according to information disclosed to the college system by Patrick Perry, director of policy, research and data for the California Student Aid Commission, the Los Angeles Times reported.
It is not yet known whether any financial aid funds were disbursed to the phony student accounts.
In the statement from the federal Office of Inspector General, Cordray said, “Federal Student Aid is working with law enforcement partners and postsecondary institutions to stop the suspected financial aid fraud. While the investigation is ongoing, our work includes determining what, if any, federal taxpayer dollars were disbursed and recovering those funds.
We notified financial aid administrators at thousands of institutions across the country and recommended actions they can take to prevent fraud, as well as protect individuals. We also will take the necessary steps to prevent this type of suspected fraud in the future.”
In a Facebook post on Wednesday, Los Angeles Community College District student Allison Zimmer Guiliotis called for an overhaul of the online application portal. “We need major reforms in the California Community Colleges system,” called OpenCCC, she wrote in the public post.
“Potential students just need a working email address to successfully apply,” she wrote.
Applicants can create an account by checking boxes indicating no social security number or declining to provide one. Applicants can check a box as homeless and not provide a permanent address.
“While this is great for those without an address, driver’s license, or social security number, it is also great for those seeking to generate fake student identities and gain entry, as a student, to the California Community Colleges,” she wrote.
The scammers hit as far north as the College of the Siskiyous, near the Oregon border, Dawnie Slabaugh, spokesperson said Thursday. She didn’t know how many potentially fake students successfully enrolled.
At San Joaquin Delta College in Stockton, Mass Communications Professor Tara Cuslidge-Staiano wrote in a Facebook post that she and a colleague saw enrollment jump from “near cancellation at 15 people to 60. We knew something was up.”
In one class, she wrote, she believes there are “four actual students and 40 bots.”
A spokesperson for the college, Alex Breitler wrote in an email that 425 fraudulent student profiles had been found and that 275 “had actually enrolled into classes. As we’re still investigating, those numbers could change.”
At the Cosumnes River College in Sacramento County, “there has been an incredible increase in fraudulent enrollment,” Yolanda Garcia, interim associate vice president of student resources, financial aid, wrote in an email to staff.
The scammers were likely after financial aid, pandemic relief grants and even .edu email addresses “to get discounts on various products,” Garcia wrote.
Some of the email addresses used in phony applications are all very similar but maybe off one number or letter.” Phone numbers were also similar, often differing by only a digit or two, she added.
The college now has a system where “the ‘student’ accounts are then disabled and labeled as a fraudulent account, she wrote.
Lundy-Wagner wrote in the Aug. 30 memo that the system has a new policy that requires local colleges to confirm whether an application that has been deemed likely to be fraud is from a real student or not within two weeks. If the college doesn’t take action, the application is automatically confirmed as fraud and the account is suspended.
“With this change, it is vital that false positives (i.e., applications marked fraudulent by the SPAM filter that are not fraudulent) are reported promptly … to avoid legitimate student accounts becoming suspended,” Lundy-Wagner wrote.
The college system’s efforts to stem the fraud possibilities are continuing. Lundy-Wagner outlined stricter measures that require the colleges beginning in September to report monthly incidents of suspected and confirmed registration fraud and the dollar value. Local college officials will be attending a training session in October.
Andrew Reed, EdSource’s digital communication and community engagement manager, contributed to this story.