Universities Warn That Freshers Are Under Threat From a “Rash of Unofficial Facebook Groups”

Every September, universities and Students’ Unions fight an ongoing battle with external companies masquerading as official freshers’ events.

This year is no different. New students, though excited to start uni, are also nervous and keen to take part in as much as they can when they arrive on campus. Often, they join every freshers’ group they find, posting and commenting to find out which events their future housemates and course friends are buying tickets for. Meanwhile, they’re bombarded with posts from external companies about how there are “just 100 tickets left” to “the biggest event in Freshers’ Week”. But it isn’t always clear to students which events are affiliated with their uni, which aren’t, and which may not even be real at all. In the panic of trying to get everything sorted for uni, it’s easy to see how students may be misled.

Keele University took to Twitter to vocalise this problem this month, after fake events were promoted to their new students on Facebook.

We spoke to Keele University about the dangers posed by both unofficial, and even fake, events advertised on Facebook.

They said “[Alongside the University’s variety of Freshers’ events] there are also external events companies, keen to get new students to their events, who often use ‘Freshers’ in their branding to attract students. These events are always off-campus, and often before the start of term, so students should be able to tell that they aren’t official events. Whilst it’s not technically breaking any rules to advertise these events (or attend them) we can’t vouch for their quality or organisation, so we’d caution students to think carefully before signing up for an external event.”

We asked Keele University what they do to tackle this problem, they said: “We take the safety of our students very seriously, and do everything we can to keep them informed of official events and legitimate offers, and to warn them of anything bogus that comes to our attention. Whilst we recognise that many students are aware of which accounts are fake, some of them can be very convincing, and it can be hard to know which accounts and groups to follow and join.”

“We would urge any student who sees an offer or event on sale that isn’t featured on our website or on our social channels to check with us first – with the University or the Students’ Union – before they part with any cash, and not to give away any personal details online.”

As Keele acknowledge, it doesn’t take long to see a common theme among unofficial freshers’ groups on Facebook – with banner photos that all promote the same events, they’re often run by a large group of non-SU affiliated accounts and are flooded with posts by promoters desperately flogging tickets.

Alarmingly, some of these promoters pose as freshers themselves, posting things that appeal to the vulnerability of new students in order to strike a conversation which ultimately ends with something along the lines of: “have you bought tickets to this event yet?” We’ve found identical posts from different accounts in multiple freshers’ groups which read: “Anyone else really really nervous about freshers? I am worried I won’t make friends, go to the right events…”

screenshot / via facebook.com

screenshot / via facebook.com

Earlier this month, University of Plymouth Students’ Union posted a statement online warning new students about “fraudulent Facebook accounts”.

It read: “It has been brought to UPSU’s attention by a number of concerned first year students that there are many fraudulent Facebook accounts posing as official Plymouth University Freshers pages and events this year. We believe that the aim of these accounts is to promote nightclubs, sell fraudulent tickets and capture student data.”

The issue of capturing students’ data is crucial, as many may believe they’re safe as long as they don’t pay for anything. But we’ve seen a post on an unofficial Middlesex University freshers’ group which asks users for their Instagram usernames. 78 new students willingly commented with their account names. “He didn’t follow anyone back” read one comment.

Similarly, one profile posted the same message in freshers’ groups for two different universities – asking new students whether they wanted to start a fitness group. In one of the posts, fitness is briefly discussed before the conversation changes to an unofficial event.

screenshot / via facebook.com

screenshot / via facebook.com

A recent comment by Warwick SU described unofficial freshers groups as a “rash” that want to “capitalise on the Freshers period”.

“Unfortunately at this time of year we are always forced to warn prospective students about a rash of unofficial Facebook groups or pages which spring up from promoters or companies looking to capitalise on the Freshers period and use these to gather students’ personal details to sell them products/events which aren’t associated with either the University or the SU. Students are advised to be highly cautious towards these, as we have received several reports in recent years of students and parents being conned out of money or given misleading information!”

We also spoke to University of York Students’ Union about this issue, who said it’s a growing problem across the country. 

“We combat those we are able to, but often the people setting these up run pretty sophisticated operations and know how to get past Facebook’s regulations” they said. “While we do have a robust social media presence – as shown by the fact that almost 3000 people have signed up to the correct event – Facebook is just one of the ways in which we promote Freshers’ Week. YUSU and the University’s official Twitter feed and, of course, the YUSU website are alternative tools. The advice for students is, as always, to remain vigilant and to double check the information you’re getting.”

Shortly after our request for comment, this statement was posted by an Assistant Head of College at the University of York to promote the official group.

screenshot / via facebook.com

screenshot / via facebook.com

Keele University gave us the following tips for spotting unofficial freshers’ groups, accounts and events.

Titles: It may sound obvious, but official groups often use the word ‘Official’ in the group name. Our Freshers 2016/17 group certainly does.

Members: Look at the numbers in the group – our official group has over 3,900 – other groups tend to have only a few hundred.

Admins: Check out the admins – fake groups often have few admins, sometimes just the same person/name with multiple accounts. Unofficial groups usually have admins who are employed by an events company – a quick click through to their profile will tell you that they don’t work for a University or Students’ Union. The admins for our Facebook group for freshers are Keele Students’ Union elected officers and employees.

Branding: Unless they want to be sued, fake groups can’t use Official university or Students’ Union branding. They’ll often use generic event/party backgrounds on their cover photos. If it doesn’t look anything like you’ve seen from your University or Students’ Union before – it’s worth double checking.

Content: If you do join a group that isn’t official, you’ll probably realise quite quickly – lots of spam selling tickets and pushing events, which isn’t what you get from an official university or SU group.

Website: Check where the links go to – if it isn’t to the University or Students’ Union website – it’s probably not authentic.”