Scammers create fake students on Harvard.edu and use them to cheat brands

Fake Harvard students

According to his biography on Harvard.edu, Mikao John was a scholar: a medical student in the Harvard-MIT program in Health Sciences and Technology who had studied statistics and biochemistry at Yale and published research in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine.

John was also a prolific author of blog posts on the Harvard site, each appearing under the words “Harvard University” and the school’s crimson “Veritas” seal, and above a post claiming the right to author by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. But despite this veneer of academic authenticity, his messages didn’t sound much like medical research.

Instead, John’s recent work featured headlines such as “KeefX.co: The Cannabis Fintech Company that Provides $ 1M in Funding a Month,” which took the form of an extremely flattering article about a startup that provides from financial services to weeding companies, and “Idahome Solar Makes the Switch to Solar Power in Idaho a No-brainer,” which praised the “customer first mindset” and “incredible fundraising program” of a seemingly haphazard solar panel business in Idaho.

It turns out that there is no Harvard student by the name of Mikao John. Instead, a con artist invented this character – and, alarmingly, managed to get the credentials to insert it into Harvard’s web system – in order to sell SEO and prestige optimized backlinks. to be put forward by someone in one of the most prestigious in the world. universities, to marketing firms with advertising hungry clients.

The practice of crooks grooming bogus Harvard students for deceptive marks on the college site appears to be widespread. In response to questions from Futurism, Harvard deleted Mikao John’s profile as well as about two dozen similar accounts used for the same purpose.

According to emails announcing the program obtained by Futurism, a Harvard blog post by a bogus student like John can be purchased for as little as $ 300 through PayPal. Some are harmless, promoting things like hair loss treatments and car insurance. Others are disturbing, such as an article on an account that appeared to masquerade as Harvard itself, with the username “Harvard2,” which made overtly racist and sexist generalizations about women and advertised it. a site claiming to sell “mail order brides”.

In short, sections of Harvard.edu have become a free spammer where fake students and other accounts peddle an endless parade of questionable stuff: online casinos, synthetic urine, Florida real estate, CBD, wireless speakers, coupons, tourism in Krakow, garage door openers, UV disinfectants, DUI avocados, nutritional supplements, fitness supplements, orthodontists, pet products, more pet products, cannabis delivery, bathroom accessories , a random moving company in NYC, online therapy, concealed carrying cases, kitchen sinks, more kitchen sinks, more kitchen sinks, more kitchen sinks, bitcoin mining, vacuums, massagers feet, obstetric and gynecological clinics, lawn decorations, bouncy castles, Ottoman beds, auto mechanics, seasonal depression lamps, exercise equipment, more exercise equipment, a realtor in Winnipeg, weighted blankets, home security alarms, roller skates, storytelling services, keto-friendly snacks, motivational speaker hire site, flat screen TVs, extras creatine, fertility doctors, commercial pressure washing services and many more odd but trashy brands and services.

Basically, it looks like anyone with $ 300 to spend can – or could, depending on whether Harvard was successful in shutting down the practice – advertise almost anything they wanted on Harvard.edu, in posts that borrow the domain and the prestige of the university without mentioning the fact that it is actually paid advertising. According to Google’s indexing, parts of the Harvard site were almost completely overrun with low-quality spam before the university started deleting messages in response to our questions.

A Harvard spokesperson said the university was working to crack down on bogus students and other crooks who gained access to its site. They also said that the crooks created the fake accounts by signing up for online courses and then using the email address provided by this process to infiltrate the various blogging platforms at the university.

“Harvard offers several web publishing options to members of our community for academic and business purposes,” the spokesperson told Futurism. “We are aware of a number of instances where individuals signed up for an online course at Harvard to obtain credentials to set up a website, then used the website to post spam. SEO. “

“These cases of unauthorized use are due to improper use of a process, not a technical vulnerability,” the Harvard spokesperson continued. “We are committed to ensuring that Harvard’s web publishing resources remain accessible and easy to use for members of our community, while strengthening our processes to prevent fraudulent use. “

Those involved in posting the blog posts to the Harvard site expressed little remorse.

One of the companies featured in a blog post by Mikao John, for example, told Futurism that the mention was obtained through a marketing company called T1 Advertising, which conceded in response to questions. ‘she sometimes paid “media consultants” to plant blog posts. on the Harvard site.

Thomas Herd, the founder of T1 Advertising, told Futurism he saw no ethical issues with the arrangement.

“As to the author’s name, what part of the site it’s on, how much access they have to Harvard, etc., this is all completely out of our control (as T1 doesn’t have direct access to Harvard), ”he said in an email. .

“If there was something wrong with the way they publish the blog posts (or if there is something wrong with the name the posts appear under),” he continued, “then c is the first time I’ve heard of it and the liability would ultimately depend on the access Harvard has given [the media consultants] or with how they represent their services to us and many other agencies that these consultants contact to offer blogging services.

Herd even appears to have taken advantage of the service to build his own personal brand, in a Harvard blog post titled “Thomas Herd Drives Academic Revolution In Digital Marketing.” In the post, which was written to give the impression that Herd is being interviewed by an official branch of Harvard University, and which makes no mention of the fact that it was a paid advertisement, Herd is boasts that its marketing techniques are the “holy grail every brand or business owner looks for.”

When contacted by Futurism, an agent who Herd said had secured positions on behalf of T1 complained that Harvard had recently deleted messages from its clients, apparently in response to Futurism’s investigation.

But, she said, she had a contact at Harvard whom she paid to access the site – a charge Harvard denied, citing an internal investigation – and expected access to be restored soon. .

At first, Harvard’s response to bogus students was surprisingly slow. After initially being made aware of the Mikao John account, for example, a spokesperson said the posts would be deleted, but they then stayed for another two weeks until Futurism sent a follow-up message.

Overall, it seemed that if a reporter hadn’t sent out numerous emails, the bogus students would likely have been allowed to continue posting indefinitely.

Broadly speaking, Mikao John and the other bogus students exemplify the dangers of user-generated content, a term for when institutions or publications allow community members to post material with little control.

In theory, this is a good idea. But when media brands including Forbes and Contractor have exploited the concept to create ‘contributor networks’, in which unpaid and low-accredited writers are allowed to publish authoritative articles on the business world, the result has often been that these same poorly vetted writers begin to solicit earnings from marketing firms in exchange for posting flattering stories about their customers.

The problem of bogus Harvard students seems to be a related issue. By providing a platform for students and other members of the community to post whatever they want – and by opening the system to anyone who signs up for an online course – the university is inadvertently encouraging a market. black in which scammers sell access to his site for SEO and marketing. purposes.

It’s also worth noting that the ability to post whatever you want on the Harvard site, under the name and credentials of a seemingly legitimate researcher like Mikao John, could be used to do far more nefarious things than sell. CBD and hair loss treatments. It’s not hard to imagine an enterprising con man shorting the stock of a specific biotech company, for example, and then paying to post a skillfully written Harvard blog post attacking its technology, buying reach for it. damaging story on social media, then cashed in on the ensuing controversy.

The fake accounts also fit into the context of a larger conversation about disinformation online. If an anti-vaccine campaigner or political agent had wanted to pay to challenge the effectiveness of the COVID vaccine or undermine confidence in the election results under the guise of a Harvard student or researcher, it would have been trivially to them easy to do.

The reality, however, is that no one in the project seemed to grasp how powerful their access was – or even think very seriously about the implications at all.

For example, we asked a scammer who sold access to bogus students if he thought Harvard would care what he did.

“I don’t know,” he replied.

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