Fake student robots at community college? The teacher is on the case

At 1 a.m., insomnia struck again.

So the criminal justice professor settled down on the sofa in the family room and opened her laptop to try to root out a suspected crime right in front of her: fake student bots.

Since learning several months ago that an unknown number of fraudulent students had enrolled in classes in the California community college system, Kim Rich, a professor at Pierce College and head of department, decided to become a robot detective. After combing through the class lists of her and other teachers, she suspects that the problem has not gone away.

She alerted her administrators that she believed robots might even multiply, and she and other faculty members said they had become frustrated with the pace of the larger investigation. Officials are not talking about it at Pierce College and the community college system as a whole, and have declined to disclose information about their ongoing investigation into the possibility of widespread fraud, possibly related to obtaining d ‘financial assistance.

“It’s something you can’t wait for,” Rich said. “If someone commits financial aid fraud, it’s taxpayer money.”

The Chancellor of California Community Colleges estimated over the summer that 20% of recent traffic to his main online application portal was “malicious and bot-related” and was linked to financial aid fraud . More than 60,000 suspected bogus students have applied for financial aid, the California Student Aid Commission told The Times in September. At least hundreds of thousands of dollars in financial aid were handed out to the robots, according to interviews and early reports from officials at six colleges.

But the extent of the situation is unclear. The state has asked each college to prepare monthly reports on the number of suspected and confirmed registration fraud incidents, the confirmed number of financial aid fraud incidents, and its dollar value. He also announced that he would be using new software to prevent bot registration. But officials have refused to release the reports on the grounds that the information is involved in a fraud investigation.

That’s why Rich isn’t discouraged in his anti-bot crusade, intending to spread the word to other professors to keep them on the lookout.

She learned to identify bot patterns and shared her findings with her colleagues at Pierce College, worrying that potential bogus students were taking slots away from real students and could waste taxpayer dollars.

She can’t explain exactly what is signaling her to a potential bot – “it’s just something that catches my eye.”

It scans class lists for strange patterns in names or for a string instead of a name; student avatars used in the system to upload assignments that look different from the norm. Through research and photo research, she has linked some of these images to a deceased person, an author, a professor from the north and a lawyer on the east coast – people she suspects of being victims. identity theft. Recently, she extracted names attached to new student ID numbers and found spellings similar to Donald Trump and Barack Obama.

Prior to starting teaching in 2008 at Pierce College, Rich had a background in law enforcement, working with detectives in the Sheriff’s Office on identity theft and burglary cases – skills that prepared her for the task at hand. At Pierce, she ascended to the Chair of Political Science, Economics and Criminal Justice.

Rich, who has always taught classes online, first noticed suspicious activity over the summer when a handful of students submitted identical homework assignments. When she realized that the students were enrolled in the same classes, she suspected it went beyond plagiarism. The patterns she identified – such as absurd responses to introductory prompts and confusing spellings of common names – were similar to what professors at other colleges said they noticed over the summer before the Chancellor’s office does not publish his memo.

In October, she detected a further potential increase related to late-start courses after increasing the enrollment capacity for a faculty’s class to accommodate those on the waiting list. In less than 48 hours, the class filled up again – unusually fast time for a class to fill up, Rich said, even with students waiting for a slot.

“It’s completely unknown,” Rich said. She started browsing the lists of other classes and saw an unusual number of the same names registered in the same classes. “It was extremely unusual for many students to take so many identical classes with the same teacher at the same time. “

She suspects robots have also infiltrated the winter class sessions, which will begin in January. And with the opening of registrations for the spring session, she fears there is no end in sight.

After sharing his findings with the Pierce administration, Rich, who has previously lectured professors on academic dishonesty, was asked to present his bot observations. After hearing Rich’s concerns, Vice President of Academic Affairs Donna-Mae Villanueva emailed the new professors and suggested that they require interactive student engagement during the first week of class to determine if they are real or false.

Villanueva said it was tricky to control a bogus student without violating the privacy of a real person. She told professors in an email that if they didn’t hear from an inactive student within 24 hours, they should drop it and include a program statement advising the students that they would be dropped out. ‘they were inactive.

But bots can be difficult to spot and aren’t always idle. Reports of weird written responses from suspicious robots to faculty questions have been common in colleges statewide.

In an emailed statement, the Los Angeles Community College District said the Nine College System and Pierce College officials are aware of Rich’s concerns and continue to resolve enrollment issues and review enrollment in the college. Classes.

“Due to pending reviews, as well as security and privacy concerns, the district is not currently releasing specific details of the situation,” LACCD spokesperson William Boyer said. . “All concerns raised by professors are investigated and addressed as quickly as possible. “

Rich and other professors said Pierce College administrators contacted her in October to hear about her findings, but did not follow through.

Another Pierce professor, who wished to remain anonymous, expressed disappointment at the college and district’s lack of urgency and leadership to notify faculty of the fraudulent activity – the responsibilities they say do not should not be the responsibility of the faculty.

“I understand that it can be a difficult thing to resolve, but it’s a big job. Either you commit fraud against the financial aid bureaus or you commit fraud against the State of California and increase your enrollment.

The issue also poses potential privacy concerns for students, a professor said.

“We make no guarantees that the people who come to our online courses are genuine students,” said Curt Duffy, Los Angeles College Guild Grievance Manager for Pierce College. “How do we know that the person in this online discussion forum isn’t there just to listen to student conversations in sometimes personal discussions? ”

“As a professor, we believe there is no due diligence with our administration, especially with admissions and records, to authenticate students,” Duffy said.

Despite her obsession with identifying bogus students, Rich admitted that she and the faculty members “aren’t cybersecurity experts, we are not enrollment experts. We were hired to educate, ”said Rich. “Our job is not to catch these bogus students in our classrooms.”

Kim Rich is a professor of criminal justice at Pierce College with a background in law enforcement.

(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Bots aren’t an entirely new phenomenon in academia, as they’ve been hooked up to scams to help people earn discounts using “edu” email addresses, but officials across the state agree. that this year’s peak is the worst ever. The combination of a decentralized system of 116 community colleges, increased federal aid opportunities, and a continued shift to online business created an environment conducive to new bot activity.

The problem came at a particularly critical time as community colleges across the state and nation faced a significant drop in enrollment during the pandemic.

Rich’s frustration with the district’s handling of the bot situation played into her decision to resign as department chair at the end of January.

In an email earlier this month, a Pierce College official announced that enrollment in winter 2022 was already 93% of what it was last winter. Rich was stunned.

“Great, registrations are up. But what percentage are bogus students? “

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