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California Colleges Are Flooded With 'Ghost Students' Attempting to Steal Financial Aid About 20% of applications for California community colleges are fraudulent, according to the State Chancellor's Office.

By Madeline Garfinkle

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Joseph DeSantis | Getty Images
Richard Valicenti, a radiation oncologist at UC Davis, is one of the thousands who have had their identity stolen to create fraudulent student applications with the intention to steal federal aid.

Richard Valicenti, 64, received an out-of-the-ordinary check in the mail last summer. It was $1,400 for a Pell Grant to attend Saddleback College in Orange County, CA. Valicenti, a radiation oncologist at UC Davis, was well-beyond his college years and also had "never heard" of the college he was allegedly attending and getting federal aid for, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.

While Valicenti was perplexed, college admissions directors and administrators are all too familiar with the situation. Valicenti's identity had been stolen by criminals attempting to receive financial aid by creating bogus college applications — a practice that has resulted in an unprecedented influx of "ghost students."

Ghost students are essentially bots created by fraudsters that take advantage of the application system in hopes of receiving government aid.

About 20% of California community college applications are fictitious, according to the state Chancellor's Office, per The Chronicle, and may be an easy target for criminals as community colleges in the state do not require a social security number to apply and are required to accept any applicant with a high school diploma.

The rise in ghost students has surged since the pandemic, due to online classes which made it easier for ghost students to go under the radar, as well as the U.S. Department of Education's decision to stop verifying household income in the wake of a national crisis — an initiative that is expected to remain in place until the next award cycle.

Related: California Woman Arrested For $60 Million Postal Service Scam

City College of San Francisco reported 59 fraudulent students to the chancellor's office this spring alone, and has identified 29 ghost students who have received $22,418 in Pell Grants to date, officials told the outlet.

"It is a 100% disservice to every single taxpayer," Kim Rich, a criminal justice instructor at L.A. Pierce College told the outlet. "These criminals wouldn't still be doing this if they weren't getting the money."

Rich said that after instructors cleared out ghost students, spring enrollment at Pierce dropped from 7,658 to 4,937.

In March, the U.S. Justice Department arrested three women in Los Angeles for allegedly stealing inmates' identities to falsely enroll in California colleges and steal federal aid. From January 2012 to August 2017, the women allegedly stole about $1 million in student loans.

"As a result of their alleged scheme, the defendants fraudulently caused the United States Treasury to disburse approximately $980,000 in FSA funds on behalf of straw students," the U.S. Attorney's Office said in the press release.

Related: 3 Arrested on Felony Charges for Allegedly Perpetrating a $4 Million 'Substantial Food Stamp Fraud Ring' With Stolen Data

Madeline Garfinkle

News Writer

Madeline Garfinkle is a News Writer at Entrepreneur.com. She is a graduate from Syracuse University, and received an MFA from Columbia University. 

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