Fraudulent Facebook groups target Dal

Marketing companies create a fake “Class of 2013” group on Facebook, now schools are keeping an eye out for identity theft online.

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Tyler Thorne's Dalhousie Class of 2013 group currently has 1,000 members. Photo: Chris Muise

This past summer, soon-to-be Dalhousie student Tyler Thorne started the Facebook group "Dalhousie Class of 2013." According to Ryan McNutt of Dalhousie, Thorne was approached by a marketing company who asked to be made administrator of the Facebook group in return for concert tickets.

When Thorne ultimately refused, he received threats of being blacklisted from bars in Halifax.

Such is just one of similar incidents of shady goings-on with Facebook groups claiming to be affiliated with universities in North America. Two such groups came online this spring claiming to be the official group for this year's freshmen.

McNutt is the New Media Officer at Dalhousie, a job that involves monitoring Internet buzz about the university, as well as integrate it into the blogosphere and social networks. "I provide strategy and guidance here in the office," said McNutt.

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In the last couple of years, Dalhousie official Facebook 'Class of" groups have amassed over 4000 wall posts and nearly 300 discussion threads. Photo: Chris Muise

Tips for avoiding fake Facebook Groups:

  • Look at the administrator; are they affiliated with a high school network or group? Most "official" Facebook groups are started by students starting university that year.
  • Gague the language they use. If it sounds overly professional, or like it was made using a template, it might not be real.
  • Go to the source; when in doubt, check with the university what group is real and which ones might not be.

McNutt was also the first to discover the existence of fraudulent ‘Class of 2013' groups on Facebook.

"A story broke in the States about a marketing company essentially 'squatting' on the class of 2013 groups of over 300 universities in the states," said McNutt. "Their business model was simple; they set up 'class of 2013' groups for hundreds of universities in the hopes that enough of them will become the default one, the one that students find when they search."

"Once that was achieved, they now had the ability to message the inboxes of all those students to pitch their product."

The company, College Prowler, was selling guides to colleges, books that rated a number of different universities in the United States. The story hit the Internet when blogger Brad Ward wrote about it and brought the phenomenon national attention. However, when McNutt called College Prowler to ask if it was doing anything with Canadian university Facebook pages, the company assured him it was not, he said.

"It didn't come up again until April. When keeping my eye on the 2013 groups, I noticed that two of them began to spike in membership for Dal," said McNutt. "They were concerning to me because they very clearly were not set up by students."

What made these groups different than a number of the ones that popped up in the U.S. is the degree to which they infringed on the identity of the university.

"What concerned me most was two factors combined. One of which was that they used the university logo. Second, they claimed to be the official Class of 2013 group," said McNutt. "When you put those two factors together, that's a very clear and obvious ploy as to appear as if we are responsible in the group, and that to us crosses a line."

Dalhousie's legal team sent messages to both administrators requesting that they remove all references to being Dal's official Class of 2013 group or face being reported. One did just that, removing all reference to Dalhousie and became a group for a marketing company. The other one failed to reply, and when reported to Facebook, the group was deleted because it infringed on Facebook's terms of use.

The company, McNutt recalls as being an event marketing company out of Toronto, was not affiliated with the previous American Facebook squatters.

Dalhousie isn't the only school that's been the target of squatting in Halifax. Saint Mary's University had to deal with a fake Class of 2012 group last year.

"There was a Facebook group set up in Halifax promoting the off-campus Frosh Week for Dal and Saint Mary's at the same time," said Andrew Barbour, the Marketing and Events Manager for the Saint Mary's University Student Union. "It's been a really interesting journey in discovering where we can actually put our foot down and say ‘you can't represent our schools like this'."

Saint Mary's took the same route as Dalhousie and asked that all reference to being an official group representing the university be removed, and the group responded by becoming a group for advertising events for university students.

Barbour doesn't foresee an end to this sort of behavior any time soon.

"The thing with social media is you can't really police it a lot of the time, unless you're really being falsely represented," said Barbour.

McNutt says the best way to spot a fake group is to look at the administrators. "Do they appear to be someone who would fit that role," said McNutt.

In the meantime, Dalhousie is simply preparing itself for the next wave come the spring.

"Should this trend repeat itself this year, we will go through a similar process in terms of evaluating any concerns or infringements on our brand identity," said McNutt.

As of this writing, Tyler Thorne's Dalhousie Class of 2013 Facebook group has just over 1,000 members, while Dalhousie's official Facebook page has 1,971 fans.

 

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