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California Community Colleges Report Enrollment Aid Scams

The California Community College System is investigating a potentially widespread fraud involving bogus “bot students” enrolled in active courses in what officials suspect is a scam for financial aid or COVID-19 relief grants.

The 116-campus system bolsters internal reporting and security measures after finding that 20% of recent traffic to its main portal for online applications was “malicious and bot-related,” according to a note released Monday by Valerie Lundy- Wagner, interim vice-chancellor of digital innovation and infrastructure.

Almost 15% of that traffic was detected by new software called Imperva Advanced Bot Detection, which was installed last month, and the issue remained “of serious concern,” she said. The note follows a previous warning issued by Lundy-Wagner in June.

California Community College Chancellor Eloy Ortiz Oakley said at least six campuses have reported an unusual increase in enrollment attempts possibly involving bogus students. But officials have yet to identify where the “pings” are coming from or how many colleges are involved.

They declined to say if any financial aid was given to the crooks, saying the investigation was ongoing.

The system reported the concerns to the Office of the Inspector General of the US Department of Education, which is also investigating, a campus official said.

“I am certainly alarmed,” Oakley said in an interview Monday. “There are a lot of unscrupulous players who are currently trying to access and exploit the benefits, much like what happened with UI and a number of other benefits that have been released. recently available due to the pandemic.

“But I am confident that colleges have been able to identify the activity and are working to mitigate risks to campuses,” added Oakley, who is on temporary leave to work on higher education issues. for the Biden administration.

At San Joaquin Delta College in Stockton, professors said they started noticing an unusual increase in online course registrations last week, the first week of classes. Upon closer inspection, the college determined that an unknown number of “pseudo-students” had signed up for courses, according to Alex Breitler, director of marketing, communications and outreach.

“It looks like some person or group has created pseudo-students and enrolled them in classes, presumably with the ultimate goal of obtaining financial aid. We’re still trying to determine the extent of it all, but it seems like it was a sophisticated effort on the part of whoever did it, ”Breitler told The Times. “We plan to drop all of these pseudo-students, for lack of a better term, which closely matches the pattern we’re seeing. We will take them out of class, we will block them from services and financial aid.

It is not known how many fake accounts were created, but Breitler said he believed it was a significant number.

“Our biggest problem right now is that our legitimate students are being taken care of. That’s why we want to ditch these pseudo-students, ”Breitler said.

The Los Rios Community College district, which serves the greater Sacramento area, said its four colleges – American River College, Cosumnes River College, Folsom Lake College and Sacramento City College – have been affected by fraudulent enrollment.

“We have a robust daily process in place that identifies registrations that may be fraudulent and, after a verification process, we promptly unsubscribe them and close access to all district and college services,” said Gabe Ross. , associate vice-chancellor of the district.

The district of Los Angeles Community College, made up of nine campuses, was not aware of any issues regarding applications or financial aid, a spokesperson said.

It was not clear what financial aid might be involved in the fraud – the state-funded Cal grants, for example, or the federal COVID-19 emergency relief grants. California community colleges have so far received more than $ 1.6 billion in COVID-19 emergency aid for low-income students. The San Joaquin Delta College has led the state’s community colleges to use the largest share of relief funds for scholarships – giving $ 1,500 checks to about 4,000 of its highest earning students. low last spring with plans to double that amount this fall, EdSource reported.

Los Rios allocated $ 13 million in emergency federal grants in March 2020 and plans to provide an additional $ 33 million to students this year to help with food, accommodation, course materials, technology, healthcare. health and child care.

Paul Feist, systems vice chancellor for communications, said the new security measures were taken in response to growing concerns about suspected fraudulent activity not only among colleges but also across industries as a result of the move to a greater scale of online operations caused by the pandemic.

Earlier this year, state officials announced that they had confirmed that $ 11.4 billion in unemployment benefits paid during the COVID-19 pandemic involved fraud – around 10% of benefits paid – and An additional 17% are under investigation. The amount of aid siphoned off by fraudsters nationwide exceeded $ 40 billion last year.

“Any financial aid fraud is unacceptable and takes resources away from deserving students who seek to improve their lives through a college education,” Feist said.

In his note on Monday, Lundy-Wagner announced stricter security measures to minimize the risk of fraud from September. For the first time, all college districts and their campuses will be required to report monthly the number of suspected and confirmed registration fraud incidents, the confirmed number of financial aid fraud incidents and its dollar value. .

These measures are based on improved security practices implemented in July, including bot detection software and a new policy requiring colleges to confirm whether applications considered “false probable” are from real students or not in a study. two week deadline. Unless the colleges confirm that the applicants are real students, the application will automatically be considered a confirmed fraud and removed from the system.

“It is clear that nationally the bad actors are trying to take advantage of any vulnerabilities in different sectors,” Lundy-Wagner wrote in his note on Monday. “As the Chancellor’s office continues to take action that will reduce information and cybersecurity threats during the admission and onboarding process, we are committed to ensuring access. ”