In the ever-expanding world of cybercrime, there is one thing that has started to impact colleges and hurting people’s prospects. Hackers have found a way to use college admissions to siphon money to their own interests and it hurts everyone involved, from the school admissions to the schools themselves and even the government funding them.
These “ghost students,” as they are called, are hackers’ way of stealing school funds from both the state and the federal government. During enrollment times, these hackers either set up fake IDs or use stolen ids to register for classes, eating up spots that legitimate students would have otherwise taken the slots. Then they apply for the various scholarships from both the state government and the federal government. Once the moneys in their pockets, they just up and leave, preparing to do more damage to various other schools.
It is a problem in many states, but California is where it is the most prominent. This comes from how easy the state had made it for people to get into colleges. As a result of the mass number of undocumented immigrants into the state, especially from Mexico and other Latin American nations, California’s legislature passed state bill 540. With an appropriate degree and established residency in the state, the state would help cover the costs of paying for their tuition, even lowering the requirements to need your Social Security Number, something that most domestic students need when they sign up for classes or college.(1)
What this ended up doing was letting fraudulent actors take advantage of that system to extort money and the state through the simple act of signing up. Using extortion and identity theft methods, they simply took the class spots and the money. Thousands of these fake students filled up class rosters, especially in community colleges. Then when the semester started, the classrooms would be empty. In one instance, a professor had a class of 15 students signed up for the class only for one physical student to appear, prompting an investigation that revealed the potential fraud.
In California, the numbers are staggering in particular with community colleges. Community colleges are much easier to scam because of their lower profile, less stringent requirements for entry. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, “Today, about 20% of California’s community college applications are scams: more than 460,000 of the 2.3 million requests to the state’s online application system since July alone, says the state Chancellor’s Office, which oversees the 116 campuses. Community colleges are required to accept any student in the state with a high school diploma, and a Social Security number is not required to apply.” While it was a problem in the years before the pandemic, the shift to online classes during the pandemic made the issue explode as you no longer had to prove you attended the school or go to class. Some still don’t three years after the pandemic.(2)
These ghost students are a symptom of cyber fraud and extortion used to steal money from not only citizens but from the federal government. What is worse is that these criminals are taking up spots that legitimate students want which causes more problems down the line. The best way for people to fight this is vigilance and education on the signs to look for in a potential extortion scam.