California Community College Overrun With ‘Fake Students/Bots’: Whistleblower

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In the aftermath of the modulation to online grooming owed to the COVID-19 pandemic, California assemblage colleges person go overrun with “fake students/bots” and allegations of fiscal assistance fraud.

Kim Rich is simply a prof of transgression justness and the section seat for Political Science, Administration of Justice, Economics, and Chicano Studies at Los Angeles Pierce College successful Woodland Hills, California. Between 2008 and 2010, Rich worked arsenic a prof connected a part-time basis. She has been employed connected a full-time ground since 2010. When the COVID-19 pandemic deed successful March of 2020, Rich was tasked arsenic a region acquisition specializer to assistance bid module successful the modulation to online classes. That gave Rich greater entree to pupil enrollment accusation than different module members.

“I person ever been precise bully astatine catching cheaters,” Rich, who besides has a instrumentality enforcement background, told The Epoch Times. “I person a knack for it. So, aft the pandemic deed and I was tasked to bash antithetic types of training, I started to thatch different module however to beforehand world integrity, however to drawback students who were cheating and however to forestall it.”

Pierce College Pierce College successful Los Angeles, portion of the Los Angeles Community College District. (Screenshot via Google Maps)

According to Rich, galore colleges use Canvas, an online, web-based learning absorption strategy for institutions, educators, and students to entree and negociate online people learning material. In Canvas, students person the enactment to customize their avatar by uploading an representation oregon simply leaving the default avatar. To stay progressive and enactment successful online assemblage courses, students indispensable implicit a assortment of tasks specified arsenic engaging successful discussions with different students, completing uploaded assignments, and taking online quizzes and tests. However, Rich soon realized that each of the enactment being submitted by 4 students was intelligibly being completed by an idiosyncratic who was not a pupil successful the class.

“As I looked into it further,” Rich said, “I realized that astir one-third of my class, which had astir 30 students, were really fake students.

“In my opinion, it appears determination are astatine slightest 2 antithetic scams astatine play,” Rich explained. “One is wherever ‘fake students’ are enrolling, past apt paying idiosyncratic other to bash the minimum magnitude of enactment to stay ‘active’ successful the people successful bid to suffice for fiscal aid. The different scam appears to impact ‘bots,’ wherever the idiosyncratic down the scam is simply trying to registry arsenic galore ‘fake students’ oregon ‘bots’ into the strategy arsenic imaginable truthful they tin get in, get the fiscal assistance and get out. Little enactment is being completed by these ‘bots.'”

Based connected her discoveries, Rich began looking into what classes the “fake students” had taken anterior to hers. She discovered galore had taken the aforesaid classes with the aforesaid prof successful the summer. Rich besides realized that 11 of her new, suspected “fake students” were anthropology majors.

“That’s unheard of,” Rich said. “I don’t get 11 anthropology majors successful immoderate of my classes, which pb maine to judge the bots had gotten successful and conscionable picked anthropology, which is I judge 1 of the archetypal majors you tin enroll successful going from the apical of the alphabet down. That conscionable does not happen.”

Then Rich noticed the avatars had changed from the default to an existent representation that appeared to beryllium uploaded from the internet.

Here is the photograph avatar for a suspected “fake student” claiming to beryllium Paul Desalvo.

Screen seizure  from suspected "fake student" illustration   successful  online strategy   astatine  Pierce Community College Sept. 2021 Screen seizure from suspected “fake student” illustration successful the online strategy astatine Pierce Community College Sept. 2021 (Kim Rich)

An net hunt provides multiple images, including 1 connected the Linkedin profile for Business Intelligence Manager Paul Desalvo astatine Kipsu successful Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Screen seizure  from Paul Desalvo's Linkedin illustration   Nov. 8, 2021. Screen seizure from Paul Desalvo’s Linkedin illustration Nov. 8, 2021. (Paul Desalvo/Linkedin)

Here is the illustration avatar of the suspected “fake student” claiming to beryllium Quiannia Wilson.

Screen Capture of suspected "fake student" Quiannia Wilson from Pierce Community College online grooming  bio Sept. 2021 A surface seizure of suspected “fake student” Quiannia Wilson from the Pierce Community College online grooming bio connected September 2021. (Kim Rich)

However, an net hunt confirms the photograph is really from the obituary of Quiannia’s sister, Latasha Wilson, who died successful February of 2012.

Screen seizure  of Latasha D. Wilson's photograph  from her obituary successful  Feb. 2012. Screen seizure of Latasha D. Wilson’s photograph from her obituary successful Feb. 2012. (Photo Credit Office Funeral Home website)

Here is the illustration photograph of suspected “fake student” Carrie Link.

Screen seizure  of Pierce Community College online pupil  illustration   for Carrie Link Sept. 2021. A surface seizure of suspected “fake student” Carrie Link from the Pierce Community College online grooming bio connected September 2021. (Kim Rich)

Another net hunt confirms that the existent Carrie Link is an adjunct prof and aesculapian director of the University of Minnesota Medical Center Family Medicine Residency astatine Smiley’s Clinic.

Screen seizure  of illustration   for module  subordinate   and Medical Director of the University of Minnesota Medical Center Family Medicine Residency astatine  Smiley's Clinic, Carrie Link, MD Nov. 8, 2021. Screen seizure of University of Minnesota illustration for Carrie Link, MD, adjunct prof and aesculapian manager of the University of Minnesota Medical Center Family Medicine Residency astatine Smiley’s Clinic successful November 2021. (University of Minnesota website)
Screen Capture of suspected "fake student" Sonja Stone from Pierce Bio, Sept. 2021. A surface seizure of suspected “fake student” Sonja Stone from the Pierce Community College online grooming bio connected September 2021. (Kim Rich)

An net hunt for Sonja Stone volition supply multiple images, including 1 attached to the writer, chef, and mother’s Twitter account.

Screen seizure  from Twitter leafage   for Chef, writer  and parent  Sonja Stone Nov. 2021. Screen seizure from Twitter leafage for Chef, writer and parent Sonja Stone Nov. 2021.

Next, Rich looked astatine the classes these students were enrolled successful for Fall 2021. The bulk had astatine slightest 1 people successful common. Many had respective classes successful common.

“Each clip I checked a people they had successful common, I recovered much ‘fake students, successful each of those classes, which past led to adjacent much classes,” Rich said. “It was conscionable a domino effect.”

Rich besides looked astatine the pupil ID numbers.

“A batch of them are close connected apical of each other,” she said. “Let’s accidental the past 2 digits were 76 and past 79 oregon 80 past 82. They were each sequentially adjacent and that doesn’t happen. So I started looking astatine much and started making galore connections.”

Not lone were each of the “fake students” successful akin classes during the summer, they are each present enrolled successful the aforesaid autumn classes.

According to Rich, the 8-week courses—known arsenic “late start” classes—were the catalyst to uncovering hundreds of fake students.

“We besides person the quality to summation our online enrollment load from 40 to 80 students, which I mostly don’t similar to do,” Rich explained. “But I didn’t person immoderate much module successful my section to thatch and determination was a demand, a waiting list, truthful I was capable to get 1 of my module to hold to summation his people to 80.”

To accommodate the students connected the waiting list, Rich said 40 further spots were made disposable connected a Monday. By Wednesday, each 40 spots had been filled.

“That is 100 percent unheard of,” Rich insisted. “That ne'er happens. I don’t cognize if that has historically ever happened for a class, to capable with 40 students successful little than 48 hours’ time.”

Rich began investigating caller enrollees. The bulk were fake students. A workfellow asked her to look into different “late start” classes successful different departments wherever enrollment was besides increased. She recovered “tons of fake students.”

“I started looking astatine each precocious starts and recovered that galore of the fake students successful ‘late start’ classes were presently enrolled successful accepted 16-week classes,” she said. “So I started to make matrixes. I would spell done 1 people and database each the ones I thought were fake students and I would look astatine what they were taking, what they had taken, and what they were presently enrolled successful and I was linking them to different classes. I recovered much ‘fake students.’ It started with dozens and dozens. Then it progressed to hundreds and hundreds.”

Then Rich started to wonder: If Pierce was this infested with “fake students,” however galore of the different assemblage colleges were having the aforesaid issue? She started looking astatine the different colleges successful the territory and randomly selecting classes. Rich’s suspicions were confirmed. “Yes. It’s happening astatine our different campuses also.”

Search for Help Leads to Dead Ends

On Aug. 23, Rich contacted Dean of Student Engagement Juan Carlos Astorga by email to fto him cognize she had discovered “fake students” were enrolled successful their online courses.

“Thanks for letting maine know,” Astorga replied. “Right present we’re dealing with a cheating scam wherever students prosecute maestro level folks from Kenya and Nigeria to bash each their enactment for the students.” Astorga admits this further contented is “district-wide” but claims lone “nine students person Pierce arsenic their location campus.”

“I volition hold for submissions and past inquire IT to tally an IP code to spot wherever they originate from,” helium told Rich.

Rich told Astorga she was not acrophobic astir who was “doing the work” for the students but alternatively that the students themselves are fake and Pierce is being utilized successful a scam wherever idiosyncratic is reaping thousands successful fiscal aid.

“My point,” Rich told Astorga, “is determination is thing other going connected beside paying others to bash the work.”

Rich emailed Patrick Luce, main accusation information serviceman successful complaint of cyber information for Los Angeles Community College District to spot if helium knew what was going connected and if helium was investigating the problem. He ne'er responded. Interim Vice President of Academic Affairs Donna-Mae Villanueva was besides informed. In fact, Rich had attended the monthly gathering for section chairs wherein Villanueva “mentioned however horrible enrollment was” and however they “needed to summation enrollment.”

It was during this gathering that Rich enactment connected a mini-presentation astir the “fake students,” astatine the petition of a colleague. Rich said idiosyncratic successful the gathering said they were told the territory is looking into the fake pupil issue, but it is simply a “slow process” and that “legal” is progressive to guarantee determination are nary Title V violations.

According to the State Student Centered Funding Formula, which uses schoolhouse size to find the magnitude of backing each assemblage assemblage receives, Pierce stands to suffer a important magnitude of backing if the “fake students” are dropped from their enrollment records. Based connected her ain findings, Rich is convinced that if each “fake student” was dropped from autumn classes presently successful advancement astatine Pierce College, enrollment numbers would beryllium chopped 1/3 to 1/2 of the existent enrollment figures.

Screen seizure  from presumption    connected  suspected tuition fraud fixed  by Kim Rich astatine  a section  caput  gathering  with Pierce Community College Interim VP of Academic Affairs, Donna Mae Villanueva Oct. 2021. Screen seizure from a presumption astatine a section seat gathering successful October 2021. (Kim Rich)

Other Teachers Speak Out

“I attraction astir funds being disposable for existent students who request them,” A.J. told The Epoch Times nether the information of anonymity.

“At 1 constituent I asked myself, ‘why don’t they person IT [information technology] look astatine this?'” A.J. said. “Classes are astir to statesman and they’re leaving this up to us. I don’t person immoderate tools to woody with this.”

Patrick, different Pierce pedagogue who spoke retired nether the information of anonymity, said helium is besides frustrated by being told it’s his occupation to hole the problem.

Mary is different Pierce prof who spoke to The Epoch Times nether the information of anonymity.

“I noticed this semester that enrollments were precise sluggish,” Mary told The Epoch Times. “My classes weren’t being filled astatine the complaint they usually do.”

“Then each of the sudden,” Mary said her classes were filling up and she rapidly realized a batch of them weren’t responding during online sessions and weren’t completing assignments. She started sending them emails, informing them that if they didn’t respond she would person to driblet them from the course. “And I’ve been dropping a batch of students,” she said.

Then she saw Rich’s presentation.

“It blew my mind,”  Mary said.

“I didn’t recognize astatine the clip that we were having this full contented with fake students and determination was immoderate speech connected field that this isn’t conscionable happening astatine Pierce,” Mary said. “I’ve dropped a boat-load of students. I’m down to 20 percent of enrollment for my class.”

Not the First Time

On Aug. 31, the Los Angeles Times reported that the California Community Colleges strategy was “investigating perchance wide fraud involving fake ‘bot students’ enrolled successful progressive courses successful what officials fishy is simply a scam to get fiscal assistance oregon COVID-19 alleviation grants.”

According to the report, a spokesperson said the Los Angeles Community College District was “unaware of immoderate problems involving applications oregon fiscal aid.”

In September, The Epoch Times reported that California’s community college system is investigating what appears to beryllium a large-scale fraud scheme, which involves much than 65,000 fraudulent fiscal assistance applications filed by “students” who were apt bots.

EdSource reported connected Nov. 5 that “at slightest six California assemblage assemblage districts fishy they person fixed retired fiscal assistance to fake students who person enrolled astatine their colleges this year.

“At a minimum, the breaches correspond a nonaccomplishment of hundreds of thousands of dollars to scammers seeking fiscal assistance from California’s assemblage colleges. It’s imaginable that overmuch much wealth was delivered to fake students, fixed that the system’s 115 accepted colleges, enrolling astir 1.8 cardinal students, are successful the midst of distributing much than $1.6 cardinal successful national COVID alleviation aid.”

Pierce College, 1 of 9 successful the Los Angeles Community College District, is portion of the largest multi-college territory successful the nation.

According to Rich, Anafe Robinson, the fiscal assistance manager astatine Pierce, told everyone during a peculiar gathering for precocious commencement instructors that the territory auditor is asking for grounds of substantive enactment and enactment with students wrong Canvas who are actively engaged.

However, erstwhile idiosyncratic astatine the gathering with Villanueva asked if the students they knew were committing fiscal assistance fraud had been removed, Robinson said they had not. When asked why, Robinson said “it’s not fiscal aid’s work to region them from the classes.”

The Epoch Times reached retired to Los Angeles Community College District President Steve Veras, asking for a connection regarding the alleged Financial Aid fraud taking spot astatine Pierce College and allegations that the District is alert yet doing small to enactment a halt to it.

“Please enactment that the District is afloat alert of the situation,” William H. Boyer, Director of Communications & External Relations told The Epoch Times. “The different allegations successful your connection are false, however, since the contented is nether progressive reappraisal by the District, determination is nary different accusation we tin presently share. LACCD is not unsocial erstwhile it comes to this contented and we urge you scope retired to the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office successful Sacramento for a much close statewide position connected the situation. Please enactment we instrumentality precise earnestly each claims and allegations of fraud oregon misuse of monies entrusted to america and thoroughly reappraisal each specified accusations for due enactment and follow-up.”

The Epoch Times besides reached retired to Astorga, Villanueva, and the guiltless victims mentioned successful this story, whose names and images person been utilized by others successful an alleged effort to perpetrate fiscal assistance fraud.

GQ Pan contributed to this report.

Patricia Tolson

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Patricia Tolson is an award-winning governmental columnist and investigative newsman who has worked for specified quality outlets arsenic Yahoo! U.S. News and The Tampa Free Press. Her absorption is covering governmental events and developments passim the southeastern United States, which whitethorn person an interaction connected the federation arsenic a whole.

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