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A fictitious online university has stolen the identity of the University of Alberta

Nearly all of the information available online about a fictitious university that purports to be in Irvine, Calif., is made up or lifted from the University of Alberta’s website.

Richard Siemens

A fictitious online university in California has stolen the identity of the University of Alberta and claims that Justin Trudeau is its president.

On its website, California South University says it has four sprawling campuses over 50 city blocks with 150 buildings and 39,000 students in Irvine, a mid-size city in Orange County. Along with the Prime Minister, it lists Indira Samarasekera, former president and vice-chancellor in Edmonton, as one of its past presidents, as well as the late playwright Arthur Miller.

Nearly all of the information is made up or lifted from the University of Alberta’s website. The fake California school alleges to have a francophone campus in Bonnie Doon – a neighbourhood in south-central Edmonton – and an office downtown that was once occupied by the Hudson’s Bay Co. It professes to have 260,000 alumni, including a virologist who discovered hepatitis B, a professor who is a member of the Nobel Prize committee and Arthur Adams, “a president of the National Hockey League.” Jack’s family will be surprised to learn that – and that he also was once a referee who made a controversial call in a game played by the “Los Angeles Maple Leafs.”

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That is all pretty heady stuff for an institution with a listed address in Irvine that turns out to be a two-storey house.

“I can tell you with certainty that there is no university that takes up 50 blocks,” says Laura Perdew, director of communications for the Greater Irvine Chamber of Commerce. She says the organization partners with a number of universities and has never heard of California South. “I know that for sure.”

The university’s website includes a picture of a building it identifies as the “Butterdome.” That is what the big yellow multipurpose facility that houses the University of Alberta’s basketball and hockey teams is called, quite affectionately, in Edmonton.

“Somebody went to a lot of trouble to do this,” says Mike Brown, a media specialist at the University of Alberta. Just by coincidence, it has 39,000 students and 260,000 alumni – and all of the same faculties as alleged by the California South University.

The University of Alberta has been aware of its online doppelganger since December. That is when it was contacted by William Grover, an assistant professor in bio-engineering at the University of California Riverside. The latter is 75 kilometres from Irvine, and his wife, Alison, graduated from the University of Alberta with honours in chemistry.

A Berkeley graduate who received doctoral training at MIT, Dr. Grover stumbled across the California South website, realized there was no such university, and that its imaginary faculty had qualifications that were too remarkable to believe. According to a biography posted online, one professor had more than 100 academic research papers published in three years. That is very enterprising, even for a fellow who is supposedly on the Nobel Prize committee.

Angry by what he saw, Dr. Grover reached out to the University of Alberta. He says that California South is trying to dupe researchers into paying to have their academic papers published on an imaginary portal.

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“They are trying to con people into sending them money,” Dr. Grover says. “It is fairly elaborate, and it’s fraud. Nothing would make me happier than to see this end.”

The University of Alberta refuted the claims and pushed to have the website shut down. Dr. Grover said the link did not work for a week or so – but it is active again. He says the website previously attempted to enroll students in classes, but now it seems to be targeting researchers instead.

“It is predatory,” he says.

The California South website claims to have an impact of US$12.3-billion on the California economy. Its asserts that it has 15,000 employees, making it the state’s fourth-largest employer. It also claims to have started in 1920, the website says, on the top floor of the Queen Alexandra Elementary School. Students attended classes in Athabasca Hall while the first building on campus was under construction.

Queen Alexandra Elementary is in Edmonton, near the University of Alberta. Athabasca Hall is the oldest building on campus. It was built out of Calgary sandstone beginning in 1909.

Attempts were made to reach California South University using the contact number listed on its website. A recorded message says that the number belongs to someone using a Magic Jack, a device that makes it possible to place telephone calls by computer.

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The number that is listed isn’t even in California. It is in Reno.

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