Trinity Southern University Sued By
Pennsylvania Attorney General

Stephen Barrett, M.D.

Pennsylvania Attorney General Jerry Pappert has filed a civil lawsuit in Commonwealth Court accusing four defendants of engaging in an elaborate scheme to promote and sell bogus academic degrees by hijacking the Internet Protocol (IP) addresses of more than 60 Pennsylvania businesses and one state government office without their knowledge. The lawsuit follows the largest state investigation into the illegal transmission of thousands of unsolicited e-mail advertisements ("spam.") [1]

Pappert identified the defendants as brothers Craig Barton Poe of Frisco, Texas and Alton Scott Poe of Saint Cloud, Florida; Trinity Southern University (TSU), of Plano, Texas, and Innovative Cellular and Wireless Inc. (ICW), of Corpus Christi, Texas. Alton is purportedly the Dean of Admissions and Vice Chancellor of TSU. Craig is the President of ICW, which handles the billing and credit card processing for the sale of TSU academic degrees. Craig also uses the alias "Desmond Jones" with a fictitious residential address in Scranton, Pennsylvania. All of the Web sites advertised in the alleged scheme are registered to "Desmond Jones." The school's address is at a Mr. Parcel mailbox outlet in Plano [2].

The defendants are accused of violating Pennsylvania's Unsolicited Telecommunication Advertisement Act and Unfair Trade Practices and Consumer Protection Law. According to investigators, beginning in January 2004, the defendants transmitted more than 18,000 illegal e-mail messages to promote the sale of online academic degrees from Trinity Southern University. The Web site link that was included in the e-mails claimed that for a fee between $299 and $499, consumers can purchase a Bachelor's, Master's, Executive Master's, or Ph.D. "degree" in English, business administration, biology, psychology, and several other fields.

The complaint states that more than 300 of the e-mails were sent to consumers without authorization through the servers of more than 60 Pennsylvania businesses and the Pennsylvania State Senate. Each e-mail typically included a fictitious name and web address for the sender.

Investigators said consumers who received the unwanted spam may have complained to the unsuspecting sender electronically or telephoned the business identified in the "from" line to speak directly to the person listed as the sender. The forged identification and routing information prevented consumers from tracing the spam back to the defendants. In addition, random words were inserted in the spam messages to confuse and bypass certain available spam filtering technology. Some companies may have learned about the scam from consumers.

Pappert said many spam recipients likely opened the e-mail due to a misleading subject line in the header of the message. For example, many of the illegal e-mails contained the words "Virus Alert" in the subject line, and "Internet Virus Department" in the "from" line. The message instructed consumers to open a link that contained the following statement: "We have detected a possible computer virus on your computer. You must open the details of the report within 24 hours or we will be forced to shut down your Internet service."

"The 'virus alert' subject line was a ruse to get consumers to pay attention to the e-mail and not delete it," Pappert said. "Those who opened the phony message and clicked on the link immediately knew that it had nothing to do with a computer virus, but was instead a sales pitch for the defendants' online degrees. Under Pennsylvania law, this type of e-mail is deceptive and illegal. This activity not only flooded e-mail systems and increased operational costs, but hurt the reputations of dozens of businesses that were wrongfully accused of sending illegal spam."

The complaint also accuses the defendants of fraudulently claiming that Trinity Southern University:

TSU's Web site offers degrees based on "previous experience and education" with "no classes to attend, no tests to take." [3] Pappert said undercover agents contacted the defendants online to obtain a $299 Bachelor's Degree in Business Administration for Colby Nolan. Their application stated that Colby had completed three courses at a community college and worked at two different retailers as a manager, and also had none food preparation at a fast-food restaurant, babysitting, and newspaper delivery.

After the review and evaluation process was completed the defendants replied that Colby's work experience qualified him to receive an Executive MBA, not the bachelor's degree that was requested. Within several weeks, the official-looking diploma arrived on professional stock paper and included an embossed gold seal from TSU with the signatures of the university president and dean. For an additional $99 fee, the agent was send a "transcript" that included Colby's graduation date, student number, and a Grade Point Average of 3.5. The transcript also listed the individual courses that Colby passed, including economics, accounting, and finance along with the corresponding grades (all A's and B's) and the credit hours. The document stated that the courses were completed in the Spring 2002, Fall 2002, Spring 2003, and Fall 2003 semesters. Colby Nolan is actually a pet cat.

"It is clear to us that this degree service is not designed for entertainment purposes but to deceive consumers and/or prospective employers into believing that TSU graduates have legitimately earned a Bachelor's, Master's or Ph.D. degree in a particular field of study," Pappert said. "These diplomas have no value in the job market." Pappert's complaint asks the court to:

Consumers who wish to file a complaint in this case should contact Pappert's Office at 1-800-441-2555 to obtain a complaint form. Complaints can also be filed electronically.

Microsoft Corporation of Redmond, Washington, helped the investigation. The case is being handled by Deputy Attorney General Kathryn H. Silcox.

"Degree" Holders

So far I have found five people who listed a Trinity Southern University credential:

For Additional Information

References

  1. AG Pappert names defendants in elaborate e-mail scheme to sell bogus academic degrees; PA private industry IP addresses hijacked to promote scam. Press release, Dec 6, 2004.
  2. Scolforo M. Online university that gave cat diploma sued for fraud. Associated Press, Dec 7, 2004.
  3. Trinity Southern University home page, accessed Dec 7, 2004.
  4. Lohr JM and others. Neurotherapy does not qualify as an empirically supported behavioral treatment for psychological disorders. Paper presented to the Science and Pseudoscience Review Special Interest Group at the 34th Annual Convention of the Association for Advancement of Behavior Therapy in New Orleans, Louisiana in November 2000.
  5. Barrett S. Some notes on the Quantum Xrroid (QXCI) and William C. Nelson. Quackwatch, Dec 21, 2005.
  6. Barrett S. Rife machine operator sued. Quackwatch, Oct 18, 2006.
  7. Kocian L, Smith S. Lab chief apologizes over online doctorate. Boston Globe, Nov 11, 2003.

This article was revised on August 20, 2007.

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