Today, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) announced it seized nine copycat websites set up to look like U.S. military recruitment pages. The websites, including Army.com and Air-Force.com, encouraged potential recruits to hand over their personal contact information. But that data was then sold to for-profit schools for their own recruitment.
The FTC filed a complaint in federal court today charging that two Alabama-based companies, Sun Key Publishing and Fanmail.com, made roughly $11 million selling data to private schools. The companies would contact the potential recruits and encourage them to enroll at specific for-profit schools under the false impression that the U.S. military endorsed the organizations. If the mark sounded interested, Sun Key would sell that recruit’s information for anywhere between $15 and $40. Tens of thousands of people visited the websites every month.
The defendants were charged with violating the FTC Act as well as the FTC’s Telemarketing Sales Rule and reached a settlement with the government. But they won’t have to give back that $11 million because of their “inability to pay.”
Army.com had been owned privately since 1995 but the FTC alleges that private marketing companies only began using it for illicit purposes around 2010. FTC Chairman Joe Simon held a conference call with reporters about the actions earlier this afternoon and Gizmodo asked why, if websites like Army.com have been owned by third parties for so long, the government is only acting now.
“Law enforcement does take time and we had to work with the Department of Justice. We like to work as quickly as possible, but we do have due process. We think this is strong relief,” Simon said. “The fact that it was set up in 1995 is instructive. They weren’t just going to relinquish this website to the government.”
The FTC told Gizmodo that the list of schools involved in the scam is “nonpublic information” and could not be disclosed.
The website Army.com is no longer active, but the Wayback Machine does give a peek at what the site looked like as recently as February.
The other websites seized include:
There was a small print notice on each site that explained how people would be contacted “about military and education information,” but according to the FTC, that was only added in 2013 and still didn’t make clear that the websites weren’t affiliated with the U.S. military.
The companies also bought internet ads that were deceptive, according to the FTC, describing the sites as official destinations for recruitment. It wasn’t until mid-2016 that the statement “a non-government, private sponsored website,” was added. To top it all off, the websites explicitly said that “personal information will not be shared with anyone else,” which obviously wasn’t true. A call to an attorney representing Sun Key Publishing was not returned by the time this story was published.
Government imposter scams are reportedly the number one complaint to the FTC, including phone scams like people pretending to be the water company and demanding payment. But these websites didn’t make money from potential recruits. They simply sold the information to third parties—schools that weren’t listed in the complaint by name.
“Those who are considering a military career deserve to have confidence that the recruitment site is legitimate and their personal information will not be misused,” said Simons. “The FTC will take action against any party in the lead generation ecosystem, from sellers to purchasers, that fails to comply with the law.”
Simon encouraged people who are actually interested in enlisting with the U.S. military to visit Defense.gov and to make sure that you check any government domain to make sure it has a .gov address. If you’re visiting a government website that has a .com address, it might be a scam.
Update, 3:48pm: An attorney for Sun Key just sent Gizmodo a (very long) statement about how it views the case. We’re publishing it in its entirety below. The most interesting claim? Sun Key was actually providing military recruitment services on a contract for the military before 2010 through two advertising agencies.
As stated in the settlement agreement, Sun Key and its principles neither admitted nor denied the FTC’s charges.
Sun Key’s business was focused on assisting individuals who are interested in joining the military. Sun Key had been providing these services to potential recruits and military recruiters since 2004 through Sun Key’s various websites, including www.airforceenlist.com, www.airguardenlist.com, www.armyenlist.com, www.armyreserves.com, www.coastguardenlist.com, www.marineenlist.com, www.nationalguardenlist.com, www.navyenlist.com (“Sun Key Websites”). The Sun Key Websites contain original content which provides news on recent developments in the military as well as material relating to military enlistment and life in the military. The Sun Key Websites also contain forms where potential recruits can submit their contact information so Sun Key can put them in contact with a military recruiter in their respective area. Users of Sun Key’s website have commented that they visit Sun Key’s Websites because they find information about enlistment that they were not able to locate on the official U.S. Military websites such as www.goarmy.com.
Prior to 2010, Sun Key provided online recruiting services to Leo Burnette (Army), Universal McCann (Army) and LMO (National Guard) in their roles as advertising agencies for certain branches of the United States Armed Forces. As part of Sun Key’s arrangement with the advertising agencies, Sun Key submitted the forms to Leo Burnette, Universal McCann and LMO on a nightly basis, and Sun Key would be paid on a per lead basis. During this time period, Sun Key’s contracts with Leo Burnette, Universal McCann, and LMO accounted for 90% of Sun Key’s revenues.
In 2010, LMO and Universal McCann decided not to renew Sun Key’s contracts due to reductions in the Department of Defense’s budget. Following the termination of the advertising contracts, Sun Key had a choice: either stop providing military recruitment services to the armed forces or find another way to provide military recruitment services to recruiters. Given Sun Key’s strong commitment to the U.S. Armed Forces and assisting those men and women who want to serve their country, Sun Key chose the latter and developed their own online recruiting system to assist recruiters within the U.S. Armed Forces. Sun Key’s hope was that at some point in the future, the military budget cuts would be reversed and its military advertising contracts would be reinstated.
Sun Key’s military recruitment network delivered potential military recruits directly to recruiters working for the U.S. Armed Forces, free of charge. Prior to shutting down its military recruitment network to comply with the settlement agreement with the FTC, Sun Key was working with more than 7,500 recruiters across all branches of the U.S. Armed Forces. Military recruiters informed Sun Key that Sun Key’s military recruitment network is a valuable tool in helping them identify potential recruits, and that the leads provided by Sun Key are some of the best performing leads in generating appointments with potential recruits. Since Sun Key shut down its military recruitment network, it has heard from U.S. Armed Forces recruiters that they have lost a valuable tool to connect with men and women interested in serving their country in the U.S. Armed Forces.
One of the ways that Sun Key ensured the quality of the leads it sent to military recruiters would be to follow up by telephone with consumers who submitted inquiries through the Sun Key Websites to confirm their contact information prior to submitting the information to recruiters on Sun Key’s military recruitment network. By attempting to confirm the potential recruits’ contact information, Sun Key could ensure that potential recruits are sent to recruiters in the right geographic area and military branch, and that recruiters are being provided with actionable contact information. If Sun Key could not confirm a valid address for the potential recruit, then Sun Key is not able to submit a potential recruit’s information into its military recruitment network. Since January 2014, approximately 73% of inquires submitted by consumers to Sun Key relating to military and educational information were validated and submitted to military recruiters. Sun Key’s process proved successful as recruiters have noted that Sun Key leads result in a large percentage of their in-office visits and contracts. For instance, the U.S. Army Virtual Recruiting for the Montgomery Recruiting Battalion reported that for the first quarter of 2017, Sun Key leads made up 40% of the contracts for the quarter. Attached is a letter from the Lieutenant Colonel with the Montgomery Recruiting Battalion from November 2017 praising the work done by Sun Key.
To sustain this free service to the more than 7,500 recruiters for the U.S. Armed Forces in Sun Key’s military recruitment network, Sun Key had to find a replacement revenue source after its contracts with the military advertising agencies fell victim of military budget cuts. As a result, Sun Key began to expand its existing call center operations to provide potential recruits with the option of hearing about potential military-friendly schools, i.e. those schools that accommodate members of the armed forces by allowing service members to earn their degree while serving in the U.S. Armed Forces. To ensure compliance with the TSR, Sun Key made sure that the forms on its Sun Key Websites either: (1) explicitly stated that the consumer was consenting to be contacted by Sun Key’s websites via phone about military and education information; (2) clearly stated that the consumers were submitting their phone numbers in order to inquire regarding military and educational opportunities; and/or (3) provided a drop-down menu whereby the individual affirmatively selected whether or not he/she would like to discuss educational opportunities.
When Sun Key contacted a consumer in response to their inquiry about military and educational opportunities, the primary purpose of the phone call is to verify the consumer’s information for submission to military recruiters. Only after Sun Key has verified the consumer’s information will the call center representative determine if the consumer also qualifies to hear about educational opportunities. Not all leads who qualify for military service will be given the option to hear about potential educational opportunities. To qualify to receive information about educational opportunities, a military recruit must meet certain qualifications including (1) being over 17 years old; (2) having a high school diploma or GED; (3) not being currently enrolled in college; and, (4) being a US citizen or legal resident. If a potential military recruit meets these qualifications, only then will Sun Key provide the recruit with the option to learn about potential educational opportunities.
If the consumer declined to hear about educational opportunities, Sun Key would end the call and will only send the consumer’s contact information on to military recruiters. The consumer’s information will not be shared with any other third party, apart from military recruiters for the U.S. Armed Forces, and Sun Key will not call the consumer thereafter.
If the consumer confirmed he or she was interested in educational opportunities, Sun Key’s representative would ask additional questions about the type of program and degree the consumer is interested in pursuing. Based on these responses the Sun Key representative will provide information as to schools that offer programs that match the consumer’s interest and provide military recruits the ability to earn credit towards a degree while serving in the military. If the consumer was interested in the schools, they would provide consent for Sun Key to provide their contact information to the specific schools, as well as provide consent to be contacted by those specific schools at the telephone number provided.