STOCKTON, Calif. (KTXL) — San Joaquin Delta College is just one of many community colleges across the state taking a second look at student enrollment numbers.
This comes after a large-scale plot was discovered, involving hundreds of fraudulent spam accounts posing as students.
In some cases, the bot accounts were filling up classes and taking spots away from legitimate students, likely in an effort to get financial aid.
After weeks of sleuthing, two Delta College professors uncovered a sophisticated college enrollment scam.
Professor Adriana Brogger said, despite her recruiting efforts, she knew it was too good to be true.
“Woah, my rosters have swelled overnight and I’ve gone from, maybe 15, 16 people — to 85,” Brogger said. “The red flag was raised.”
Weeks later, when the semester began, her suspicions about fraudulent students were confirmed while grading discussion board responses.
“There was sort of a pattern with syntax and spelling and errors,” Brogger said. “The smoking gun was that there was a reply from one person who had two very, very different family structures and replies with the same name, which is obviously shady.”
Professor Tara Cuslidge-Staiano said the more they dug in, the more evidence started piling up.
“I noticed that all of these were new students — no history at all with the college,” Cuslidge-Staiano said.
Delta College confirms they’ve identified at least 425 confirmed fraudulent students — of those 275 were actually enrolled in classes.
“I think we felt a lot of violation, as instructors, but also — our big concern in that moment was, ‘what about our students?'” Cuslidge-Staiano said.
In at least one instance, a bot privately messaged a real student about a job.
“Here we have these pseudo-students taking class spaces, you know, potentially trying to scam our students within our own classroom spaces, which is horrifying to us,” Cuslidge-Staiano said.
The college took action Thursday, dropping the student bots and blocking them from accessing their school financial accounts.
Delta College spokesperson Alex Breitler said the “pseudo-student” enrollment issue is being seen across 116 schools in the California community college system.
“It’s affected many colleges and I think it’s going to take some investigation, honestly, to be able to determine when this started and how widespread it is,” Breitler said.
Both professors said, had faculty not been as engaged with students, there’s no telling how long the “ghost students” would have gone undetected.
“I think that a lot of times we just need to trust our gut and keep digging,” Brogger said.
Cuslidge-Staiano believes the human factor is the best way of catching this sort of fraud.
“When our systems are kind of letting things through and they’re getting into the classroom, it’s going to be the human touch that says, ‘This isn’t right,'” Cuslidge-Staiano said.
Delta College said the classes that were significantly impacted by the fake enrollment will still be held.