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Biology students receive email spam from testing software

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A Gmail inbox. In a software flaw, Boston University students who took a cell biology class in Fall 2020 were sent hundreds of spam emails Sept. 24 by the company ExamSoft, whose testing software Examplify had been used in the class. ILLUSTRATION BY CONOR KELLEY/ DAILY FREE PRESS STAFF

Boston University students who took the cell biology class BI 203 in Fall 2020 received numerous spam emails Sept. 24 due to a glitch in Examsoft, which hosts a testing software used to administer tests to students.

Uwe Beffert, a biology professor in the College of Arts and Sciences who taught the class last fall, wrote in an email the spam occurred “for some unknown reason.”

“ExamSoft started sending many emails to students from my Fall 2020 class that one of their assignments was past due, and that they needed to submit their work,” he wrote.

The company was informed of the issue and resolved it the same day, he wrote. 

“It was clear that it was a software glitch,” Beffert said, “but I’m sure it was annoying for the students because they received many emails on the same subject.” 

Some students reported receiving up to 1,500 emails. 

Charlie McMahon, a sophomore in Sargent College of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences, took BI 203 last fall and received spam. 

“It was really unexpected,” McMahon said. “The emails that were coming were from a class that I had taken last fall, so it was really just kind of a weird way to wake up on a Friday.” 

McMahon added although the situation is now amusing, it was frustrating at the time. 

“It was really annoying because I kept getting all these notifications and I was afraid that my phone was gonna freak out with all the emails coming in,” McMahon said.

He said when he reached out to the IT Help Center he was told ExamSoft had been contacted. 

“​​But after that I never had a follow up from IT and I never heard from the professor, but the emails did stop,” McMahon said.

An email from the IT Help Center stated the department has “been working hard to reduce the prevalence of [phishing and spam emails], but it’s impossible to entirely stop them.”

The email added technology to prevent future spam emails from reaching student inboxes had been deployed. 

There is always time to stop and think about whether this seems right. If you do find a phish message we encourage you to submit it to,” the email stated.

Richard Chu, a junior in CAS who experienced email spam, said the subject lines for each email were related to homework, with one example reading  “Upload Homework #1 (new version).” 

“I was like ‘oh that’s weird because I’m not taking a class right now this semester that’s using ExamSoft,’” he said, “so I didn’t really know what was up and then I kept seeing that as I refresh my email, I kept getting the same email over and over again.”

Chu said he received 50 to 60 emails every five minutes and 1,800 emails in total with the same subject line. 

“[The spam] did make me think a lot about how BU has used all of these third-party resources in our classes,” Chu said. “It just made me think about how kids have trouble with these applications all the time.”

Chu said he did not reach out to IT for help, but the emails stopped three hours later at around 12:15 p.m.  

Patricia Simaku, a junior in CAS and former cell biology student, said she reached out to other students who had been in her class when she first received the spam emails and realized her problem was not unique. 

She said she eventually reached out to IT for answers. 

“I called IT and basically just asked what was going on as I got like over 1,000 emails in two hours,” Simaku said. 

Simaku called the whole experience both “frustrating” and “funny.”

“I actually couldn’t click on any other notifications and I couldn’t see any of my other email notifications,” she said. “But laughing about it with IT and my friends definitely made the situation better.”

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