Students walk by the Admissions office in the Student Services Building on Tuesday, Dec. 5. (Raphael Richardson | The Union)
Students walk by the Admissions office in the Student Services Building on Tuesday, Dec. 5. (Raphael Richardson | The Union)

Human trafficking, fake students suspected in financial aid and enrollment scams

El Camino College joined a growing list of community colleges that have been defrauded by what education officials believe could be a human trafficking ring.

The college lost $110,298 in financial aid last academic year to scammers who pretended to be students.

Chau Dao, El Camino financial aid director, said the college has filed cases with the Department of Education Office of the Inspector General relating to the fraud.

The stolen money was disbursed to 77 successful Pell Grant recipients in the 2022-2023 academic year. The amount released to scammers ranged from $128 to $3,448, officials said.

Successful grant applications mean the applications were approved and that money was released to the recipients of the grant.

Pell Grants are federal financial aid given to undergraduate students who display exceptional financial need. The maximum award for 2022–2023 was $6,895 per student in the country.

El Camino College Pell Grants data from 2019 to 2023
2019-2020: 8,710 students received $30,940,398
2020-2021: 7,136 students received $25,925,484
2021-2022: 6,819 students received $23,785,553
2022-2023: 7,580 students received $27,993,242

Dao said El Camino had to return the $110,298 they released to fake students back to the federal government because it is considered an overpayment.

At the latest financial student aid conference Dao attended, she said one of the things to look out for is a student wearing earpieces during the interview for their financial aid application.

Dao said investigators from the Office of Inspector General (OIG) believe the individuals being made to pose as students are human trafficking victims.

The fake students don’t know the information the traffickers provided on the applications so someone else dictates the details to them via the earpieces, Dao said.

“When we’re asking questions to validate who they are before we start speaking to them about their financial files, it’s actually the people behind the scenes that are in control of their applications,” Dao said.

Dao said if a student is wearing earpieces in the interview during the verification process, the advice to financial aid staff is to ask the student to take the earpieces off.

“Do not allow the students to have earpieces,” Dao said.

The Union tried to obtain more information by requesting an interview with the OIG. Catherine Grant, OIG public affairs liaison, said in a Nov. 1 email the OIG is “investigating the matter.”

“Per our policy, the OIG does not discuss details of its ongoing work. This longstanding policy is in place to protect and maintain the integrity of our efforts,” Grant’s email said.

The California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office is unaware of human trafficking cases related to student enrollment or financial aid fraud.

But the Chancellor’s Office has acknowledged fraud occurred through “multiple avenues, generally including bots, individuals and fraud rings.”

Paul Feist, California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office vice chancellor for communications, said there are “international actors” involved in some of the fraud.

Kim Rich, a professor at Pierce College, currently on a leave of absence, said it would not surprise her if the enrollment and student aid fraud were tied to human trafficking.

Rich worked as a deputy sheriff for the Ventura County Sheriff’s Department for 13 years. She’s been teaching criminal justice since 2008 at Pierce College.

Rich is largely credited for breaking the story on bot students in August 2021 when she investigated suspicious students on her class roster.

Rich said fake students are often victims of identity theft.

“The extreme majority of the fake students enrolled in courses, they’re first of all just placeholders,” Rich said. “There’s not a real person behind that and they’re almost all victims of identity theft.”

A ‘Relatively Small’ Amount

Robin Dreizler, El Camino dean of enrollment services, said it’s not uncommon to have one person behind 40 or 50 fraudulent applications.

“So when we say a fraudulent student, it’s really more a fraudulent record because it’s not always tied to one person,” he said. “It could be one person doing a lot of the activity.”

El Camino did not provide data on how many fraudulent applications and enrollments the college had to fend off.

El Camino Vice President of Student Services Jeff Stephenson said while $110,298 is a lot of money, it is relatively small compared to what other community colleges have lost to fake students.

The total amount of Pell Grants awarded to El Camino students was $27,993,242 for the 2022-2023 academic year. The amount stolen is 0.39% of the total. (See “Financial Aid Fraud by the Numbers”)

Application and Enrollment Fraud by the Numbers
105 out of the 116 – campuses in the California Community Colleges were affected by enrollment fraud
20% – percentage of the OpenCCC traffic flagged as malicious and bot-related
15% – percentage of the malicious bot attacks caught by Imperva bot detector
$100 million – set aside in the California budget “for various technology and information security purposes”
$75 million – earmarked for “security network upgrades, general security software, and anti-fraud technology”

Information from the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office said confirmed fraud reported in the state annually amounts to $2.5 million.

This is equivalent to about 1% of all aid distributed.

“I will speak from where the college I came from, we had entire sections of classes that were fraudulent students,” Stephenson said.

Stephenson was hired at El Camino in July 2023, following a move from American River College in Sacramento where he also served as the vice president for student services.

Vice President of Student Services Jeff Stephenson works in his office in the Administration Building on Tuesday, Dec. 5. (Raphael Richardson | The Union)
Vice President of Student Services Jeff Stephenson works in his office in the Administration Building on Tuesday, Dec. 5. (Raphael Richardson | The Union)

American River College is one of the four colleges in the Los Rios Community College District.

All four have been targeted by the fraud as reported by the Sacramento Bee, Los Angeles Times, and American River College’s student-run newspaper, American River Current.

American River College had at least 1,200 confirmed cases of registration fraud, as reported by the Current in September 2021.

Dreizler also said the number of financial aid fraud cases El Camino had to deal with is not significant compared to other colleges.

“Talking to sister schools around the state and hearing that entire classes were 30 to 35 deep with fake students, we had our share,” Dreizler said. “But I don’t think it was significant with the number of checks that we have in place.”

Recognizing Patterns

Stephenson said fake enrollments in the previous college he worked at started before the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.

“It was starting to occur before the pandemic, but I think the pandemic really escalated [the fraudulent activities],” he said.

Dreizler said El Camino became aware of the fraud over a year ago but a lot of fraudulent activity happened during the pandemic.

“More students were applying and taking classes remotely, so they were pretty anonymous,” he said.

Dreizler said they started seeing patterns and similarities with enrollees who were not participating in class.

“There were some consistencies from certain students, whether it was their location or their zip codes,” he said. “Sometimes phone numbers would give away some patterns.”

Dreizler said when they dug in a little bit deeper and reached out to the student, they found they didn’t exist or their addresses didn’t exist.

El Camino College Dean of Enrollment Services Robin Dreizler poses for an environmental portrait in front of the Student Services Building on Monday, Dec. 4. Dreizler said El Camino had its share of fraudulent enrollees but the number is not significant. (Ma. Gisela Ordenes | The Union)
El Camino College Dean of Enrollment Services Robin Dreizler poses for an environmental portrait in front of the Student Services Building on Monday, Dec. 4. Dreizler said El Camino had its share of fraudulent enrollees but the number is not significant. (Ma. Gisela Ordenes | The Union)

Dao said the scammers are becoming “more and more lackadaisical.”

“They’ll use addresses from Beverly Hills where the home value is like $5 million,” she said.

Dao said the financial student aid offices of community colleges nationwide have a network where they share information to identify and mitigate fraud.

“What was happening was that [the scammers] were jumping from school to school,” Dao said. “And so with our network of communication with financial aid directors, we were able to kind of figure that out.”

The scammers, however, haven’t stopped attacking El Camino.

Dreizler said when the new eight-week classes started, a professor came to him alarmed the “students” were submitting assignments that had nothing to do with the assignment prompts.

The new eight-week classes, which started on Oct. 21, were offered to help drum up enrollment to avoid budget cuts and a hiring freeze.

Financial Aid Fraud by the Numbers
$76.2 billion – COVID-19 federal emergency funds to institutions of higher education and their students
$9.5 billion – COVID-19 federal emergency funds that California institutions of higher education and students received
$4.2 billion – COVID-19 federal emergency funds that California community colleges received
$1.6 billion – COVID-19 federal emergency funds set aside for low-income students
$2.5 million confirmed fraud in California community colleges reported annually, equivalent to about 1% of all aid distributed
7,580 Pell Grant applications that El Camino College processed for 2022-23 academic year
$27,993,242 – total Pell Grant amount awarded to students for 2022-23 academic year
$110,298 – Pell Grants stolen from El Camino College for academic year 2022-23, equivalent to 0.39% of the total Pell Grant for the same period
77 fraudulent Pell Grant applications in the academic year 2022-23
$128 to $3,448 – amount received by fraudulent students from El Camino

‘Victimless Crime’

Josh Troesh, El Camino professor and Academic Senate vice president of finance and special projects, said a lot of people may think of enrollment and student aid fraud as a victimless crime.

“Who cares if someone’s getting financial aid?” Troesh said. “But realize that as a society, there’s only so many resources that we can put toward students.”

Troesh said those committing fraud are not just taking from the government but from students who need those resources to advance their lives.

“It’s theft from the government, but the real theft is that it’s theft from students who need that money, that’s where the money is ultimately going to come from,” Troesh said.

Rich said fake students limit the ability of real students to enroll in courses because they are on rosters months before classes begin and they remain there even after classes begin.

Dao also said she thinks it’s good for students to be aware that fraud is happening.

“Real students need to be aware because it’s impacting them indirectly because it’s taking spaces out of the courses that they need,” Dao said.

Fraud Widespread in California

The California Community Colleges Technology Center has identified “20% of the OpenCCC traffic as malicious and bot-related.”

This is according to an Aug. 30, 2021 memo from Valerie Lundy-Wagner, interim vice chancellor of digital innovation and infrastructure at the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office.

OpenCCC is an online portal maintained by the CCCCO. Anyone applying to the 116 colleges in the state must first start an OpenCCC account.

The intention is for a single sign-in account that allows prospective students to access the online services of the California Community Colleges, called CCCApply.

The Los Angeles Times reported on Sept. 1, 2021 that 105 out of the 116 campuses in the California Community Colleges were affected by enrollment fraud.

StoryMap: Mapping Application, Enrollment and Student Aid Fraud
El Camino College lost $110,298 in financial aid money last academic year to scammers pretending to be students. Many other colleges in California and beyond have also been affected.

Screenshot from the Knightlab story map site
Screenshot from the Knightlab story map site

View a story map that breaks down which colleges have been defrauded so far by clicking here.

Feist said it’s important to make a distinction between enrollment fraud and financial aid fraud.

Enrollment fraud is “widespread throughout the system” while financial aid fraud is “more limited.”

“I wouldn’t say all colleges have been hit with financial aid fraud,” Feist said.

A Sept. 20, 2021 memo listed the three related types of fraud officials have identified: admission application fraud, enrollment fraud and financial aid-related fraud.

Admission application fraud happens during the creation of a CCCApply account when a prospective student starts the application process to community colleges in the state.

One of the reasons fraudsters target CCCApply is to get a .edu email address which is given at the time of application.

Various resources on the internet discuss the benefits of getting a .edu email, from discounts on retailers like Amazon and Microsoft to access to libraries and databases.

Video tutorials on YouTube give step-by-step instructions on how to get a .edu email.

Enrollment fraud takes place after any of the 116 colleges have accepted an admission application and have authorized the student to register for courses.

California colleges that have flagged questionable application and enrollment numbers include Mt. San Jacinto College, Contra Costa Community College District, Cerritos College and San Diego Community College District.

Mt. San Jacinto identified 42,000 suspected cases in the 2020-21 school year while Contra Costa Community College District had 40,000 suspected fake applicants in fall 2020.

Community colleges in other states that have reported fraudulent enrollment attempts include Portland Community College in Oregon, Salt Lake Community College in Utah, and Des Moines Area Community College in Iowa.

Financial aid-related fraud occurs after the student has been accepted for admission, their identity is confirmed by the college and the college has begun the process of disbursing local, state and federal financial aid.

While the scammers may have different interests at every step of the fraud, Feist believes the end goal for most is to steal financial aid.

“I think ultimately, people do wanna create or commit financial aid fraud,” Feist said. “But there are so many eligibility and processing steps that stand between enrollment and actually receiving financial aid.”

John Hetts, CCC executive vice chancellor for innovation, data, evidence and analytics said in an undated memo the Chancellor’s Office “deals most directly with application fraud.”

This is because “the Chancellor’s Office and Technology Center have the most control” during the application process.

“Once an application is accepted by a college, subsequent fraud prevention measures rely upon the local staff and faculty,” the memo, sent by Feist to The Union, said.

The CCC Chancellor’s Office has requested monthly fraud reporting since September 2021 but colleges and districts have been showing “modest participation” in sending the data.

A Jan. 21, 2022 memo tried to correct this by requiring all colleges and districts to report suspected fraud to the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office by the 10th of each month.

Feist said the colleges and districts have been complying “more fully” with the monthly reporting and it has helped tackle the issue.

“It’s information that we’ve chosen in the public interest not to make public,” Feist said.

He said the information could be used by fraudsters to identify certain colleges that are especially vulnerable versus other colleges.

No Way To Verify Data

Rich is wary of the data being reported by colleges because “many schools have not been transparent,” she said.

She said colleges have not been forthcoming with their numbers and there’s also no way to verify the data.

“If you provide me with a list, but I have no way of verifying that list, then what good is that list to me?” Rich said.

Rich said one reason why colleges are hesitant to share the extent of fraud is because they’re scared of losing funding.

“Everybody that is allowing the fake students to enroll in classes or failing to remove them from classes is financially benefiting through funding,” Rich said.

Every student remaining in a class, fake or not, can mask real enrollment data.

Colleges are funded based on their enrollment numbers.

Rich said because this started happening during the pandemic and the uncertainty swirling around at the time, people were concerned about funding and the impact it could have on classes.

“Obviously, nobody wants to lose the class that they’re teaching due to low enrollment,” Rich said.

Cerritos College
Seen here on Sunday, Dec. 3, Cerritos College is located 15 miles away from El Camino College. Both El Camino and Cerritos College among others in the local area have been flagged for questionable application and enrollment numbers. (Delfino Camacho | The Union)

Other California colleges that have reported financial aid fraud include Fullerton College, San Diego Community College District and Mt. San Antonio College.

Fullerton College’s student-run newspaper, The Hornet, reported Fullerton has stopped “over $1 million in financial aid funds” from being dispersed to fraudulent students in 2021.

The San Diego Community College District has prevented $373,854 from being disbursed to fake students as reported by the City Times Media, San Diego City College’s student-run media group.

The district however has released $101,619 in aid “to fraudulent student accounts” in February and March 2022, according to the same report.

Mt. San Antonio College distributed $190,732 to “63 fraudulent students” as of October 2021, according to an EdSource report.

Feist said $2.5 million confirmed fraud annually or 1% of all aid distributed is a relatively small number but it’s not an acceptable number.

“Obviously, we don’t want any but the reality is that people have been trying to scam systems,” he said.

Feist said a lot of the fraud is “very organized and very sophisticated” and that’s why the CCCC finds it challenging to keep ahead of the methods used by scammers.

Rich said the criminals committing fraud are going to adapt to protocols that are put in place but they’re already 10 steps ahead of everybody else.

She said population size and the “antiquated” CCCApply system are the reasons why California is especially vulnerable to fraud.

“The system was broken and there were these little baby Band-Aids that were put over but the floodgates have been opened by then,” Rich said. “If you have a fire hydrant that is going off and filling all this water, you don’t just put a little Band-Aid on it and let it keep going, you turn it off.”

CCCApply was never turned off, Rich said.

Feist said the attacks increased during the pandemic when colleges were forced to go online “very quickly.”

There were more opportunities for bad actors to exploit vulnerabilities in the system during the swift online onboarding, he said.

“And frankly, there was more money available in the system because the federal government and the state government were trying to help students cope with the terrible effects of the pandemic,” Feist said.

The federal government provided $76.2 billion in COVID-19 emergency funds to institutions of higher education and their students.

California received the lion’s share of that aid, $9.5 billion, with $4.2 billion going to community colleges and $1.6 billion set aside for low-income students, according to a series of EdSource reports, “Following COVID money in education.”

The Department of Education relaxed the verification procedure for financial aid applications for the 2021-22 award year.

“The Department will focus aid verification on identity theft and fraud for the 2021–22 application cycle,” its press office said in a July 13, 2021 press release.

The department did it to help students in need access critical financial aid funds, the press release said.

California’s Efforts to Combat Fraud

The state government takes the matter of enrollment fraud seriously. It has set aside $100 million “for various technology and information security purposes” for its 2022-23 California Spending Plan.

A big portion, $75 million, was earmarked for “security network upgrades, general security software and anti-fraud technology.”

The Department of Education rolled back the more stringent verification process for financial aid applications in summer 2023.

The California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office said it will “directly impact Financial Aid fraud starting in the 2023-2024 school year” and will help in their fraud mitigation efforts.

The Chancellor’s Office has also deployed various strategies to help mitigate the fraud.

Aside from Imperva, monthly reporting by colleges and automatic suspension of any accounts associated with fraudulent activity, the Chancellor’s Office has also added multi-factor authentication to CCCApply.

El Camino also announced it is instituting a multi-factor authentication, which will be “required to log in to El Camino systems, including Canvas, from off-campus” starting Nov. 27.

In December, the CCCCO will launch its newest program to combat fraud: identity verification service on CCCApply.

Through, CCCApply will adopt the same technology for identity verification and fraud reduction “as 37 state agencies and 15 federal agencies,” according to the Nov. 8 PowerPoint presentation.

The presentation also said “over 8 million Californians already have a verified account.”

The program will go live on Friday, Dec. 8.

More to Discover