Veterans Education Success, a nonprofit that works to advance higher education success for veterans, service members and military families, submitted two petitions to the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to counter predatory schools’ use of abusive lead generators.
The first petition requests that the FTC investigate schools that used the services of Sunkey Publishing, Inc., Sun Key Publishing LLC, and Fanmail.com LLC, companies that operated a series of websites that were disguised as official recruiting channels for the United States Armed Forces. These websites, including Army.Com, Air-Force.Com, NavyEnlist.Com, ArmyEnlist.Com, AirForceEnlist.Com, MarinesEnlist.Com, NationalGuardEnlist.Com, and AirGuardEnlist.Com “appeared to be official recruiting websites affiliated with the U.S. military,” according to the FTC, and claimed to offer patriotic Americans the opportunity to enlist in the Armed Forces, but failed to share citizens’ contact information with the Armed Forces and instead sold their contact information to for-profit colleges. This interfered with Americans’ ability to serve their country in uniform and disrupted America’s military readiness, which relies on an all-volunteer force.
In particular, FTC found that Army.Com diverted potential recruits by telling them that “the military is currently downsizing. Army.com wants you to know that there are more ways for you to serve your country . . . If you had a college education you could contribute through engineering, science, law, health care, and more.” In reality, the Army had been experiencing recruiting declines and was in great need of new volunteers.
Upon urging by Veterans Education Success and other veterans organizations, the FTC shut down these websites in September 2018. Military and veterans organizations wrote to the FTC in November 2018, requesting that it release the names of the colleges that supported and partnered with these websites, and Veterans Education Success filed a FOIA request seeking the names of the schools. The FTC denied the request because of its ongoing legal work. Thereafter, the FTC sued Career Education Corporation for partnering with these websites. The FTC alleged that Career Education Corporation utilized lead generation companies that falsely represented that its schools were affiliated with, or recommended by, the military and induced people to submit their information under the guise of providing job or benefits assistance. Career Education Corporation agreed to pay $30 million to settle the charges.
The second petition requests that FTC investigate lead generation websites operated by QuinStreet, Inc., and Reach Network, Inc., as well as the schools that used their lead generation services. These companies operated lead generation websites that appear to have accepted payments from schools in exchange for promoting the schools higher on search results despite the fact that the schools were not the best match for the consumers performing the searches and apparently without adequately disclosing to consumers the companies’ paid relationship to the schools promoted. In addition, the websites specifically asked about military affiliation and then showed search results leading military-connected students to schools with poor student outcomes that likely had a financial interest, because of the 90/10 loophole, in paying for such leads to gain access to the GI Bill and military education benefits, which most for-profit colleges utilize to offset the cap on Title IV funds the schools otherwise face.
“When prospective students discover low-quality schools that pay to be promoted in search results under the guise of unbiasedness and trustworthiness, all consumers are unfairly victimized by this con and clear violation of the law,” said Aniela Szymanski, Senior Director of Legal Affairs and Military Policy at Veterans Education Success. “I’ve looked at these websites myself and I can honestly say that I would be deceived by them as well. So, it’s not a matter of prospective students not being careful in their research, it’s a matter of these sites blatantly misrepresenting themselves. That’s why we are asking the FTC to act once again, to protect service members and their families and not let these companies continue preying not only on our military and veterans, but also on taxpayers.”