Ex-Iowa college student charged in high-tech cheating scheme

Trevor Graves

Trevor Graves

IOWA CITY — A former University of Iowa wrestler has been arrested on federal computer-hacking charges in a high-tech cheating scheme in which he allegedly obtained advanced copies of tests and changed grades for himself and classmates.

Trevor Graves, 22, carried out the scheme by secretly installing devices known as keyloggers in computers in university classrooms and labs that allowed him to record what his professors typed, including their credentials to log into university grading and email systems, according to the FBI.

The Colorado native allegedly used that information to access the professors’ accounts so he could intercept exams and test questions in advance and to repeatedly change grades on tests, quizzes and homework assignments, court documents allege. The FBI says Graves changed his grades more than 90 times over a 21-month period, and changed grades on numerous occasions for at least five other students.

Graves was arrested Tuesday in Denver and released on bond pending an initial court appearance Thursday in Iowa. He is charged with intentionally accessing a computer without authorization to obtain information, and knowingly transmitting a computer program to cause damage. Both charges carry a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison.

Graves’ attorney, Murdoch Walker, declined comment. Graves joined the Hawkeyes wrestling team in 2013, seeing limited competition before leaving the roster last year.

The cheating scheme lasted from March 2015 until December 2016, when an instructor reported to campus IT security officials that a number of grades for Graves had been changed without her authorization, court documents state.

The scheme allegedly compromised the integrity of a wide range of classes, including in business, engineering and chemistry. One student told the FBI that Graves shared copies of roughly a dozen exams before they took place, and the student accepted them because “he/she knew Graves was providing the copies to other students and did not want the grading curve to negatively impact his/her scores.”

The university warned 250 faculty, staff and students in January that “unauthorized individuals” had obtained their HawkID and password information. The FBI launched an investigation after learning about that breach, which was already under investigation by campus police.

Investigators searched an off-campus Iowa City apartment where Graves lived in January, seizing keyloggers, cellphones and thumb drives that allegedly contained copies of some intercepted exams. One phone contained a screenshot showing Graves being logged into a professor’s email account and highlighting an attachment entitled “exam,” an FBI affidavit states.

Text messages show Graves and several students discussing the scheme in which Graves allegedly sneaked into classrooms to install and retrieve keyloggers, which are available commercially for around $50. In one message, Graves instructed a classmate to go to a microeconomics class to confirm that the teacher logged into her account and “that we acquired the info.”

The FBI said Graves and an associate identified in court documents as A.B. used the code word “pineapple” to refer to the keylogger device.

“Pineapple hunter is currently laying in wait in a classroom already,” Graves allegedly wrote in one message.

In another, the affidavit alleges, A.B. urged Graves to use the device to steal an upcoming test, saying “I need 100 on final just to get B- at this point.”

“Or we could use the time to study?” Graves replied.

In another, a student identified by the initials Z.B. asked Graves whether he had told a classmate “about the Hand of God on that test.”

“No. The less people know the better,” Graves allegedly responded.

The university told the FBI it spent $68,000 investigating the breach and improving IT security. A school spokeswoman said Friday she was gathering additional information on the charges. The university warned students earlier this year that those involved could face expulsion or suspension.

Court records show that at least two other students had their homes and electronic devices searched as part of the investigation. They haven’t been charged.