Blumenthal & Warren Lead Senators Requesting FTC Investigation into Colleges That Purchased Data From Illegal Websites Deceiving Recruits, Servicemembers & Veterans

[WASHINGTON, DC] – U.S. Senators, Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), and seven other Democratic Senators, wrote the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) today to ask the agency to investigate and make public all higher education institutions that purchased user information from illegal copycat military websites that deceived and preyed on prospective military recruits, current servicemembers and veterans. 

The FTC recently took actions against Sunkey Publishing and Fanmail.com, the operators of websites like www.armyenlist.com and www.army.com that falsely represented themselves as affiliated with the U.S. military in order to generate leads for colleges and universities.  However, the FTC failed to publicly disclose, investigate, and hold accountable the list of institutions that may have been knowingly complicit in this scheme by purchasing the personal information.

“The FTC complaint links Sunkey and Fanmail to several post-secondary schools, including Grantham University, which was specifically named in the text of complaint, as well as DeVry University, University of Phoenix, Kaplan University, Ashford University, and Walden University, based on accompanying exhibits.  Many of these institutions have already been investigated or sued by the FTC, Department of Justice, and Department of Education for defrauding borrowers and making false claims to prospective students,” wrote the Senators.  “Americans, servicemembers, and veterans deserve to know the full list of institutions that used these schemes to prey on them.  The FTC should also investigate these institutions and hold them accountable if they were aware of the origins of the leads they purchased and were, therefore, complicit with Sunkey and Fanmail’s actions.”

The illegal websites prompted visitors to provide their personal information, promising visitors they would be contacted by a “military representative,” and that their information would be used solely for recruitment purposes and would not be shared with anyone else. After visitors submitted their personal information, however, it was sold to post-secondary schools for $15 to $40 per lead.  Post-secondary schools then pursued these individuals, often enticing them to enroll with false claims that the military was “downsizing.”  This scheme has robbed our country the service of valuable young men and women who wanted to enlist, and financially disadvantaged those individuals as well as current servicemembers and veterans.

The letter was co-signed by U.S. Senators Dick Durbin (D-IL), Patty Murray (D-WA), Maggie Hassan (D-NH), Ed Markey (D-MA), Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Kristen Gillibrand (D-NY), and Sherrod Brown (D-OH).  The full text of the letter is available here and copied below.

October 9, 2018

Dear Chairman Simons and Commissioners Ohlhausen, Phillips, Chopra, and Slaughter:

We write to ask you to release the full list of schools that purchased user information from illegal and deceptive lead generators, like Sunkey Publishing, Inc. (“Sunkey”) and Fanmail.com, LLC (“Fanmail”). Further, we urge you to investigate and take action against any institutions that you determine were knowingly complicit in this illegal scheme. We were pleased to see that the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) recently took action against Sunkey and Fanmail, operators of copycat military websites that preyed on prospective recruits by falsely representing themselves as affiliated with the military, while actually generating lead sales for post-secondary schools. This action will help protect current servicemembers and veterans, and it will preserve and protect the pipeline for our next generation of heroes. However, more must be done.

The FTC complaint links Sunkey and Fanmail to several post-secondary schools, including Grantham University, which was specifically named in the text of complaint, as well as DeVry University, University of Phoenix, Kaplan University, Ashford University, and Walden University, based on accompanying exhibits.  Many of these institutions have already been investigated or sued by the FTC, Department of Justice, and Department of Education for defrauding borrowers and making false claims to prospective students. Americans, servicemembers, and veterans deserve to know the full list of institutions that used these schemes to prey on them. The FTC should also investigate these institutions and hold them accountable if they were aware of the origins of the leads they purchased and were, therefore, complicit with Sunkey and Fanmail’s actions.

In November of last year, many of us sent a letter to the Commission urging the FTC to remain vigilant in ensuring that federal laws and rules regarding deceptive college recruiting tactics are enforced to protect veterans, servicemembers, and their families from unscrupulous actors. We strongly commend your recent actions shutting down these impostor sites. However, sunlight is said to be the best disinfectant, and more transparency is necessary to effectively rein in these bad actors, and ensure that Americans have the information they need to protect themselves. Sunkey’s and Fanmail’s unlawful actions were particularly heinous and demonstrate the need for sunlight.

According to the FTC’s complaint, websites involved, like army.com and enlistarmy.com, deceptively posed as official military enlistment websites. The websites prompted site visitors, including individuals seeking to join the armed forces, to provide their personal information, promising they would be used solely for recruitment purposes and would be contacted by a “military representative” and that their information would not be shared with anyone else. After site visitors submitted their personal information, however, their information was sold to post-secondary schools for $15 to $40 per lead.

Instead of being contacted by an official representative of the United States military, site visitors were contacted by telemarketers who often misidentified themselves as military representatives. These telemarketers then encouraged individuals to pursue a post-secondary education at specific institutions, often falsely suggesting that the military supported certain schools or that the military was no longer recruiting due to “downsizing,” and giving individuals the false impression that specific schools were endorsed by the United States military.

The illegal actions of these companies negatively affect everyday Americans, the military community, and our country—and will potentially continue to do so for years to come. They harm our pipeline for the next generation of servicemembers, and thus undermine our national security.  The defendants behind these illegal scams, including Sunkey and Fanmail, have been rightfully charged with violating the FTC Act’s prohibition on deceptive acts and practices, and the FTC’s Telemarketing Sales Rule (TSR), including Do Not Call provisions. The defendants were subjected to financial judgement and had their websites taken down. However, the post-secondary schools that purchased and benefited from the leads remain relatively unaffected.

This deceptive scheme may have already harmed those who have been willing to put their lives on the line for the country by steering them away from military service, and encouraging them to incur costs for education they claim will “increase your chances for a better job or higher pay.” In addition the scheme denied our country of the services of talented, qualified individuals who wanted to enlist. We must ensure this does not happen again by bringing accountability and transparency to all those involved.

We respectfully request a response by October 18, 2018.

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