A report released by American network security company Palo Alto Networks found that email accounts from 42 universities around the world were available for sale on Taobao, the Chinese site which has drawn comparisons to eBay and Amazon. Harvard, Yale and Columbia are among the 19 universities on the list, the report said.
Prices ranged from 0.98 yuan ($0.16) to as much as 2,400 yuan ($390). For an added cost, buyers could apparently gain access to further information that would grant them the ability to change passwords and security questions. Some sellers even offered custom-named email addresses for just 27 yuan ($4.40). Beyond the prestige factor, some sellers also advertised the .EDU accounts as a way to access academic databases and take advantage of student discounts.
Xiao said it is not clear how the sellers gained access to the email accounts, but one answer could be that hackers gathered passwords from students’ other online accounts and tried their luck. He dismissed the idea that students may be selling their email addresses, saying it would be “very hard” for Chinese sellers to contact students from so many universities worldwide.
Palo Alto Networks said it had notified universities about the potential security breach, telling NBC News the universities had said they took the report - which was published last week - seriously. All but one of the nine schools contacted by NBC News this week declined to immediately comment on the report.
Taobao is owned by Alibaba Group, which is preparing to make its stock market debut soon. The company is planning to raise $24.3 billion the biggest U.S. initial public offering in history.
Florence Shih, a spokeswoman for the Alibaba Group said in a statement that the sale of “this type of product” is not allowed on Taobao and listings in question have been taken down.
“Any similar listings that are found on the platform will be removed and the sellers involved will be penalized,” she said.
While most of the sellers appear to have been scrubbed off the e-commerce site, a quick search by NBC News late Thursday revealed that other Ivy-League options still remain.