Company admits Facebook flub

Shady marketing practices by a publishing company geared toward colleges have raised questions about online security for incoming freshman on social networking sites.

College Prowler, the company that produces “Off the Record” guidebooks about colleges across the country, created “Class of 2013” Facebook groups for more than 400 universities – including GW – to create new points of contact for incoming freshmen. The groups are normally created by accepted students to provide a place to meet future classmates and discuss the school.

Brad Ward, an electronic communication coordinator at Butler University, said he made the discovery after a friend and admissions official at Winthrop University told him the Winthrop group had members that hadn’t been admitted to the university.

“It wasn’t until I recognized the same name as starting [Butler’s] Class of 2013 group that I realized something was up and investigated further,” Ward said.

Through a systematic investigation on his Web site, squaredpeg.com, Ward pieced together a massive profile of the schools over which College Prowler had administrative control. The Facebook profile for Justin Gaither – who was the creator of the GW Class of 2013 group – was associated with more than 50 groups for different schools.

College Prowler’s top official admitted in an interview that the practice was a bad idea.

“One or two employees and a couple interns created them as a marketing strategy,” said Luke Skurman, chief executive officer of College Prowler. “But I believe it was a bad marketing effort because it wasn’t ethical and it wasn’t clear what our intentions were.”

Skurman said the company created 25 groups but partnered with another company, Match U, to gain administrative access to more groups. College Prowler is trying to make amends by shutting down involvement, owning up to the scheme and sponsoring discussion on Facebook practices, he said.

Though Facebook is structured so that only users who have made or accepted a friend request can interact with one another, it is a common practice for accepted freshmen to become Facebook friends with other group members before meeting them, giving inauthentic group members access to thousands of incoming freshmen. Holding the group’s administrative rights allows a user to mass-message and monitor the group, though Skurman said CollegeProwler never messaged members or wrote on any of the groups’ pages.

Skurman, whose company’s “George Washington University: Off The Record” college guidebook is sold at the GW bookstore, said the company’s goal was to inform incoming students about free CollegeProwler guides that can be accessed on the Web site.

“People who don’t know our guidebooks and the value they bring viewed it as a bad marketing initiative on our part because our intentions weren’t clear,” Skurman said. “That’s where we faulted.”

Though GW does not sponsor an official Facebook group, many universities do play a role in creating the official group for their school. What role universities should play on sites like Facebook has been an ongoing debate, but Ward thinks the scam should inspire administrators to get involved.

“As far as implications, I think it’s a wake up call for universities to begin pursuing a social media presence and listen to the conversation online. As universities, we don’t ‘own’ the conversation like we used to,” Ward said. “It’s student/user-driven. But that doesn’t mean we can’t listen and be involved and ensure that correct information is being given.”

Facebook deleted the groups and accounts, citing violation of terms of service. But the bigger issue, Ward said, is recognizing the lack of privacy on the Web.

“Students need to take a proactive role about their online presence and ensure that what they’re putting out there is their best foot forward,” he said. “Be careful of who you friend, don’t give out more information than you need to.”

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