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.edu fraud alert…again

email messages in colorful envelopes Bad news for retailers and college students.  Some sketchy retailers in China are selling students’ .edu email addresses to the highest bidders. The scam artists who buy these legitimate .edu email addresses are using them to create special accounts under software developer programs, get access to academic databases, and yep, you guessed it, receive student discounts and coupons from retailers.  Accounts were stolen from universities all over the world, including two dozen colleges in the United States, including Stanford, Yale, MIT, Columbia, Duke, Harvard, and Cornell. The .edu email accounts are being sold on Taobao, the largest consumer-to-consumer e-commerce platform in China for as little as $.16 or as much as $390 each.

Jim Kathman from the National Student Clearinghouse, the nation’s leading provider of online education verification, had these thoughts on the problem. “It’s an unfortunate fact that there are scam artists who take advantage of college students by stealing and selling sensitive student information, such as .edu email addresses and passwords. We strongly encourage students think twice about what sensitive information they share online, especially with brands they don’t already know and trust. Brands that offer student discounts or other benefits can help protect themselves by leveraging education verification services through companies like SheerID.”

What else college students can do to protect themselves:

1. Change your passwords often. Use secure passwords that include numbers, special characters, and long strings of numbers and letters. If you have trouble remembering passwords, look into a secure password vault like Last Pass or Keepass.
2. Reserve your .edu email address for school use. Use a personal email address like a gmail account for shopping and taking advantage of special student promotions. A recent SheerID focus group of college students found that to be on the safe side, many students only use their .edu address for school-related activities like classwork or to email professors and classmates.
3. Look for student discounts and promotions that don’t require .edu addresses for verification. Many companies, like Spotify, are moving away from the “.edu loop” method of verification, which requires you to click on a link in your .edu email account to verify student status, in favor of more sophisticated verification methods. Like Jim, recommended. If you are going to exchange your .edu email address for a student discount, only give it out to brands you already know and trust.

What can retailers do to protect their student discounts against .edu fraud?

Discount fraud is a prevalent problem. An apparel company targeting the 15-29 year old demographic learned this first hand when they launched a 25% college student discount, for a limited time, online only. They blasted the messaging across their social media platforms and to their email marketing list. Within 24 hours, 35k shoppers responded to the message. Fourteen thousand people who responded were verified as currently enrolled college students. However, the majority of the consumers, 60%, who tried to redeem the college discount were not qualified for the offer, and were turned away or presented a secondary offer. Without verification technology in place, the retailer would have given an exclusive college student discount to 21k customers who were not attending college classes.

Even before news of this most recent scam broke, there were problems with using .edu email addresses for verification purposes. A recent survey conducted by SheerID showed that 58% of people who used to be in college retain a .edu email address indefinitely, in some form. In light of this recent news, it’s more important than ever for retailers to think about adopting more sophisticated forms of eligibility verification to protect their student discounts, academic products, and exclusive student offers.

“In light of recent news of Chinese retailers selling .edu email addresses, students are going to be more leery of retailers asking for their .edu email addresses, and with good reason,” says Jake Weatherly, CEO of SheerID. “To increase consumer confidence and to protect their own discounts from scammers, retailers should retire the .edu email loop as a verification method and move towards more sophisticated eligibility verification solutions that check against real-time enrollment data and don’t require sensitive information like .edu email addresses or social security numbers.”

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