This fall's freshman class of 2013 is the latest target of a Facebook scam, with bogus groups gaining access to thousands of new undergraduates by pretending to have ties to their university campus.
The fake groups, part of a trend that began last year in the United States, are believed to be a ploy by marketers eager to tap into a growing network of young people. University officials, who are learning to spot and close down such sham groups, say they are further evidence of the need for students to keep a close watch on their personal information.
"The potential for abuse that these groups have is enormous," said Matthew Melnyk, who works in the recruiting office of Brock University and discovered this latest network of imposter groups. "We need to take care of this because our students are at risk. They are young and excited about coming to university. They get an offer to join a group. They think it is legit. If it is someone who has malicious intent, who knows what they could do."
In the case Mr. Melnyk stumbled on earlier this month, a Facebook group with about 4,500 members linked students to what appeared to be Class of 2013 groups associated with 16 Canadian universities including Brock, the University of Toronto, Dalhousie University, the University of British Columbia and McGill University. Many of the groups looked official and used university logos, but Mr. Melnyk could find no connection between the creators and the schools.
For the past two years, informal groups of incoming students on Facebook have become increasingly popular as a way for freshmen to connect with future classmates and trade information. That popularity has not gone unnoticed by companies that target the undergraduate market, and last fall, U.S. schools asked Facebook to shut down some 400 bogus Class of 2013 groups. The main culprit was a company that publishes university guides and was planning to use the groups to promote its products.
"It was a huge wakeup call for schools in the States about being aware of what is going on on the Web," said Brad Ward, who discovered the huge network of sham U.S. groups while working for Butler University, and helped Canadian schools alert Facebook to their problem.
Now a consultant, Mr. Ward said creators of bogus groups can gain e-mail access quickly to thousands of young people. It's an audience that can be used for selling everything from off-campus housing to concert tickets, textbooks or bedding. And while the original U.S. group and the network in Canada were stopped because they misrepresented themselves as official university sites, others that do not make those claims are more difficult to stop.
Facebook spokesman Barry Schnitt said in a statement that his company encourages users to report suspicious content or activity on the site.
"Facebook has always been based on a real name culture, and we've developed complex automated systems to help detect fake accounts."
University staff are increasingly watching the Web for such abuses and say they expect to see more imposter groups because the marketing potential is so big.
"This is not the last we are going to see of them," said Ryan McNutt, who works on new media for Dalhousie University, which shut down a fake Facebook group this spring. "Every year there is a new group of students and a new opportunity for marketers to try and take advantage of them."