The popular social networking site Facebook shut down more than a dozen fraudulent Canadian Facebook groups this past May that were trying to trick first-year students into signing up. However, within weeks other fake groups popped up to take their place.
For several years now, many high school students who are entering university in the fall sign up to legitimate Facebook groups created by fellow students for their particular freshman class. For example, students who are starting their first year at Brock University in September can sign up to the “Brock University Class of 2013” Facebook group, named for the year in which the students are scheduled to graduate.
Students can use these groups to get to know each other, share information and plan activities before they even set foot on campus. Most, if not all, universities in Canada have similar student-run Facebook groups.
However, the fake “Class of” Facebook groups are set up by individuals with no connection to the university they purport to represent. It appears they are creating these fake groups to collect personal information on the students to be used for marketing purposes.
The alarm on fake Facebook groups was first sounded in the U.S. last December by Brad Ward, a blogger who works in student recruitment. This past February, Matthew Melnyk stumbled upon such a group pretending to represent Brock University students. Digging further, Mr. Melnyk, the electronic outreach officer in Brock’s recruitment and liaison office, found that this group was linked to other illegitimate “Class of” Facebook groups at more than a dozen Canadian universities (British Columbia, Concordia, Guelph, McGill, McMaster, Queen’s, Ryerson, Simon Fraser, Toronto, Trinity Western, Wilfrid Laurier, Western Ontario, Windsor and York).
Facebook shut these groups down, but within weeks Mr. Melnyk discovered other fake Facebook groups that were now promoting the Classes of 2014 and 2015. These fake groups are linked to a marketing company called Eruption Productions which organizes events aimed at university students.
“I think this is a pretty clear indication of their game,” said Mr. Melnyk. “If you can gather thousands, or potentially tens of thousands, of student contacts, you have a very valuable resource for event planning and management.”
Ryan McNutt, the new media officer in the communication and marketing department at Dalhousie University, had a similar experience at his university. The obvious message for universities, he said in a blog post, is that they must keep a close eye on social media.
“As both individuals and organizations get savvier in the social media realm, our responsibility to monitor and protect our identity online is only going to grow,” he noted.
“Every university has to make its own decisions as to when to take action, but the use of a school’s identity to mislead prospective students into a marketer’s channel is a serious concern that shouldn’t be taken lightly.”
Mr. Melnyk at Brock said that if companies want to market to students using social media, that’s none of his business. But these marketers should not be doing so under false pretenses, pretending to be a student-led group when they clearly are not.