Prospective students be warned: not all college websites are what they say they are.
That’s the message the North Carolina attorney general sent when he tweeted about the “so-called, unlicensed King’s College.”
Attorney General Josh Stein announced on Jan. 18 that the state Department of Justice is working with the University of North Carolina system to stop a fraudulent website purporting to belong to what once was a real institution in Charlotte, N.C.
The actual King’s College in Charlotte closed in 2018. The fake website has an online application form that requests personal information, such as images of a driver’s license. There’s also a $75 application fee.
A cease-and-desist letter from the UNC system, dated Jan. 13 and posted online by the state Department of Justice, notes the absence of “any mention of legal authorization, curriculum, or any proof of the thousands of students and over 700 full-time faculty the institution purports to have” on the fake website, and says “while the Institution claims to be a leading research institution, it appears to have lifted the entire contents of its research webpage from Cardiff University in the United Kingdom.”
Under state law, the UNC Board of Governors has licensing authority over nonpublic and out-of-state institutions.
Online brand impersonation has exploded in recent years, experts say, and the sketchy King’s College website appears to illustrate the ease of posting such scams online as well as the difficulty in getting them taken down.
Marty Calihan, former CEO of the real King’s College, said he’s been trying for months to get the bogus site taken down, including by talking with a local TV station, WCNC, for a story about the site that aired last month.
“The tragedy is that a good college’s name and likeness is being used to scam innocent people in Charlotte, elsewhere in the United States and probably all over the world,” Calihan said in a phone interview. “They are requiring people to give them money and all the information they need for identity theft.”
He added, “My concern is that even people as powerful as the North Carolina attorney general’s office aren’t going to be able to identify who is behind the site or how to get it taken down.”
The site also links to LinkedIn pages, apparently to make the college seem more real. On LinkedIn, the King’s College profile page has 4,776 followers and has posted an article—of dubious origins—that directly references the actual college closing down. The article falsely claims that the “re-opening was considered successful amidst interruption by the Covid-19 epidemic,” with millions in new infrastructure funding for new management and academic projects.
The college’s purported president—a “Coleman Q. Monroe”—also has his own LinkedIn page and has more than 500 connections. A few other supposed King’s College leaders also have LinkedIn pages.
Public information about the website lists the registrar as GoDaddy.com LLC, but other information about who is behind the site remains hidden.
Calihan said he reported the site to GoDaddy.com last February and March to try to get it taken down. Nick Fuller, a GoDaddy spokesman, said in an email that while the site’s domain name is registered with the company, “the content of the website is hosted elsewhere.”
Calihan said a colleague from the actual King’s College also contacted the North Carolina attorney general to report the site as bogus.
Nazneen Ahmed, a spokeswoman for the attorney general’s office, said the office is unable to comment about specific actions being taken because of the ongoing investigation. She said no citizen complaints have been received about the site and that the attorney general’s office became aware of it because of a query from a member of the media.
A UNC system spokesman did not respond when asked if there had been any response from the website operator to the cease-and-desist letter. Ahmed said no response has been received by the attorney general’s office.
The King’s College website lists what are some apparently fictional accrediting bodies. One listed accreditor, the “U.S. Higher Learning Commission,” for which the website provides a fake link, caught the attention months ago of an actual Chicago-based accreditor, the Higher Learning Commission.
“HLC vigorously defends misuse of our name and marks because this can create confusion,” Heather Berg, the commission’s vice president of communications and engagement, said in an email. Berg provided Inside Higher Ed a copy of a cease-and-desist letter the commission sent to the bogus website in June.
The site and its reference to the “U.S. Higher Learning Commission” remain online. Berg said the actual Higher Learning Commission has never received a response to its cease-and-desist letter, and that the organization has “filed numerous complaints with various registries and other similar services regarding the United States Higher Learning Commission website itself.”
Kari Kammel, director of the nonprofit Center for Anti-Counterfeiting and Product Protection (A-CAPP), housed at Michigan State University, said online brand impersonation has exploded in recent years.
“It’s immense and it’s nonstop,” Kammel said.
Companies can go through the courts to get sites taken down, and hosting websites also have certain responsibilities to respond in some way to reports of fraud.
“The question is how long does the process take, and again, that’s a big variable from company to company, what the risk factor is in what they’re taking down,” Kammel said, noting that a site that poses a risk to public health—by selling counterfeit baby formula, for instance—would likely have action taken against it more quickly.
Other college websites of dubious origins have occasionally drawn scrutiny. Last August, TV station KHOU in Houston reported on a website for a supposed college listing a nonexistent address in the city. A spokesman for the actual University of Houston told KHOU that the purported school, the Houston University of Science and Technology, was not believed to be legitimate.
While KHOU reported over the summer that the site was no longer working, it continues to exist online.
The University of Alberta, in a 2018 blog post, described how the nonexistent “California South University” had a real website that copied the authentic origins of the Canadian campus and presented it as its own history.
Calihan said he doubted that getting a site taken down would end the problem.
“The sad thing is that if someone is successful in getting one of these sites to be taken down, it will just become a game of whack-a-mole, with all the new ones that will pop up,” he said.
Calihan has taken action on his own, paying for the monthly cost of a new website that went live last week that warns people away from the King’s College impersonator.
“You just feel like you want to do something,” he said.
His hope is that search engine traffic will somehow point potential victims to the warnings on his new website.
“I hate to see even one person get scammed,” Calihan said.