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Colleges and Universities

Zombie colleges? These universities are living another life online, and no one can say why

Stratford University says it will prepare students to “Be the Boss.” But applicants hoping a Stratford education will ensure that future are headed for disappointment: The Virginia school closed two years ago this fall.

Instead, Stratford is one of at least nine shuttered colleges whose names have been resurrected on the web. None of these zombie universities are accredited or cleared to receive federal financial aid – hurdles that signal legitimacy. And their motives are cloaked in a mystery no federal oversight agency seems to have tried to solve.

Stratford University closed in 2022, but a new site using the same photos and visual elements has since popped up. The original Stratford website has come down, and the image on the right comes from an archived version.

Kari Kammel, who heads the Center for Anti-Counterfeiting and Product Protection at Michigan State University, was perplexed by the counterfeit sites. At ӣƵ’s request, she reviewed them and said she suspected identity theft could be at play for some.

“They figured out a way to post something, get students to apply, take application information, take credit card information, take financial aid information,” Kammel said.

Know more about zombie colleges?

Some of the imposter websites are tied to colleges that shut down long ago, like Morrison University in Nevada, which closed its doors in 2014, or Jones International, one of the first schools to offer college courses online, which followed in 2015. Others focused on institutions whose demise came recently, including the private Catholic Marymount California University, which closed nearly two years ago.

Marymount California University closed in 2022, but that hasn't prevented someone from setting up a replica of the college's website. That website recently came down as ӣƵ reported on the counterfeit universities.

Brian W.G. Marcotte, the real Marymount California’s final president, was troubled to learn of the new website from ӣƵ. He also was confused: Why would anyone spend so much time and energy creating a replica of the school? With other former staffers, Marcotte sent a cease-and-desist letter sent to the site’s domain registrar, Namecheap Inc., and posted a warning on the actual Marymount website.

“We take it pretty personally that somebody is misrepresenting what we worked so hard for 54 years to create,” Marcotte said. “And to have somebody twisting the reality of where we are right now is very troublesome to us.”

The warning was posted on April 29, and by May 6, the imposter Marymount California website had been taken down. It was one of several changes that came after ӣƵ began asking questions.

But whoever is behind the websites will have an ever-growing pool of schools to emulate as more universities close. And regulators have had mixed success in addressing counterfeit school websites.

King’s College in Charlotte, which closed in 2018, attracted the attention of the North Carolina attorney general in December 2022, according to a local television station. More than a year later, that office is, “working with tech companies to limit the reach of these fraudsters to help prevent others from falling victim to the scam,” according to Olivia Weidie, deputy press secretary, who would not divulge precisely what the website was accused of doing.

That imposter website remains online.

The Federal Trade Commission declined to say whether the websites even fall under its purview. In 2018, the agency fined operators of what appeared to be military recruiting websites, including one at army.com. But those sites were actually mining marketing leads for colleges. The fine, later suspended, was about $12 million, and the operators were required to surrender the domain names for the imposter sites.

The Education Department confirmed that the nine schools identified by ӣƵ were closed and that it didn’t approve the accreditor some of the universities claim. But the agency said it does not oversee unrecognized accrediting agencies or schools that are ineligible for federal aid.

UCLA will purchase two properties owned by Marymount California University, a small Catholic institution in Rancho Palos Verdes that has closed. Sept. 27, 2022. Marymount California University is located at 30800 Palos Verdes Dr. E, Rancho Palos Verdes, CA 90275

Though a web of connections links many of the closed universities, a nagging question remains: Where is the spider?

Administrators listed on the schools’ websites have almost no digital footprint. Phone numbers lead to prerecorded messages that in turn lead nowhere. Google Street View shows listed addresses often are nondescript office buildings instead of campuses.

The Stratford address, now in Kentucky, is a law office. When asked if it was home to a university, a receptionist there said no.

Online, Stratford provides information about its business, computer science, law and other degrees but posts no list of professors who teach advertised courses or schedule of when classes start. Are they offered online or in person? Does the school admit people on a rolling basis or do new students have to wait until the fall semester to start?

With no indication of whom to ask, I decided to apply to Stratford. I sent in an essay and the $75 application fee. Then, like aspiring university students across the country, all I could do was wait.

Nonexistent students, barely there administrators and a made-up bakery

Former Stratford University students provided the tip about the school’s resurrection because they were worried. The Education Department typically cancels federal financial aid debt for students if their university closes unexpectedly, as happened with Stratford. Some of the students haven’t gotten their debt forgiven yet, they said, and they feared it was because the college appeared to remain viable.

A quick look suggested something was amiss.

When the original Stratford was still open, its homepage featured a smiling dark-haired woman in a pink cardigan alongside the motto “Changing Lives… One Student at a Time.” The new Stratford website features the same woman and motto. The two websites also share a blue-and-white color scheme.

From there, the replica version quickly veers into some unusual new territory. The school’s past president was Richard R. Shurtz, who didn’t return calls or requests for comment. The leader of the replicated website is described as a headmaster, a title seldom used in America. His name? Jonathan Doe.

Tracing titles, backgrounds and images leads down some winding paths.

A reverse image search showed Jonathan Doe’s headshot is in high demand across the internet. He is identified as a speaker at a Norwegian church, the author of a book on currency trading, a dental office patient.

That's because his image is for sale on Adobe’s marketplace, described as a “studio portrait of a confident businessman.”

A screenshot from the replica Stratford website that shows its "headmaster" Jonathan Doe. That headshot is high demand across the internet.

A review of the school’s “Board of Trusties (sic)” does reference a university president, Silas Hawthorne, and a chief academic officer, Theron Beaumont. Neither could be located in real life despite their unusual names. A blog post says Thaddeus Ellington, the dean of students, used to teach at California Marymount University, but there’s no record of Ellington serving at that college – or any other.

Student profiles also appear to have been fabricated. Some undergrads are described as having played sports for the university, a difficult feat since the original Stratford hadn’t fielded teams for years. Rachel Stevens’ biography mentions her work at her family’s business, the Sweet Moments Bakery in Fairfax, Virginia. There’s no indication such a bakery ever existed.

Stevens’ student profile also is posted on a website called Hozpitality.com – with a “z.” That site is described as a “Social Media and Networking platform focussed (sic) on the Hospitality Industry,” with offices in Canada, Dubai and India.

Another post on that site gives Stratford University a backstory, acknowledging in broken English that it closed two years ago but is now on the upswing.

“Despite early successes, SU encountered challenges leading to a temporary closure in Fall 22,” the post reads in part. “After 46 years of providing unwavering global service and high-quality education. Declining enrollment and financial restructuring needs prompted a difficult decision.”

Hozpitality’s website features posts about eight other closed universities that suggest they remain open. As with Stratford, some address their closure, saying they reopened thanks to an influx of dollars. For three – Colorado Heights, Jones International and Urbana University – the posts say an “EEI investment” made their reopening possible. They don’t specify what EEI is or why it’s interested in funding closed American colleges.

As I continued my reporting, the application pages for several colleges vanished. The replica website for Nyack College also came down after I reached out to Christian & Missionary Alliance, the group that had been affiliated with the former small Christian school. Hannah Castro, a spokeswoman for the group, said that the organization wasn’t aware of the website but that its legal counsel was “handling the situation.”

The state of Colorado was listed on websites as having approved four of the colleges. Megan McDermott, spokeswoman for the state Department of Higher Education, told me that was not the case. Her agency referred the cases to the Colorado Attorney General’s Office.

Anyone with pocket change can look like a university online

Uncovering who is behind these websites proves to be a tall order. There are no restrictions on who can register sites through .college, .university, .education or .org web addresses − the domain endings used by the counterfeit universities.

They’re also cheap to register. A .education domain name, for example, costs only about $20 for a year via Google. That means anyone can throw up a website that seems like a place offering higher education.

This screenshot of the current Marymount California University's website displays a warning about the replica website. That copycat site came down during ӣƵ's reporting.

The domain names do set them apart, because most American universities use .edu for their websites. That ending is generally reserved for institutions approved by an accreditor – quasi-governmental bodies certified by the federal government to ensure colleges meet a minimum academic threshold.

None of the zombie universities have been approved by recognized accreditors. A few do claim to be accredited by organizations like Gulf HEC or the United States Learning Commission – none recognized by the federal government.

Though .edu domains require institutions to report who is behind them in public registries, other domain endings do not. What was available for the zombie schools was only the country where the web addresses are or were registered – the U.S., Australia, Iceland and Panama – and how much they cost.

Law enforcement agencies and internet regulators can get access to private domain information. In some cases, they can even force bad actors to take down websites.

That is how Somsak Jinaphan and his company, IDigitalAsset LLC, got caught. They had been tied to several cases of cybersquatting, which involves creating a web address nearly identical to an established business or brand, then offering turn it over or take it down – for a price.

In the mid-2010s, Jinaphan’s company registered a knockoff version of the private liberal arts school Davidson College, under the web address Davidson.College. The college uses Davidson.edu, and it wanted that fake address taken down.

Davidson College’s board of trustees filed a complaint under the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers’ domain dispute policy. That body oversees web addresses worldwide. In the complaint, the trustees accused Jinaphan of using the counterfeit site to host ads and had put the knockoff url up for sale.

An independent panelist agreed with the school and required Jinaphan to turn the address over to the college.

Back in 2017, Jinaphan also was listed as the owner of the domain stratford.university, according to the domain registry lookup, WHOXY. Jinaphan didn’t respond to ӣƵ’s request for comment, and the website’s current owner has opted to withhold their name.

Southern Vermont College students cheer at the school's 89th commencement in 2016. The school shut down three years later.

Martin Calihan, who was the last president of King’s College in Charlotte, faced a situation similar to Davidson’s. He told an NBC affiliate in 2022 that he had spent more than six months trying to get the fake website taken down. The University of North Carolina system in 2023 even sent a cease-and-desist letter. Calihan told the trade publication Inside Higher Ed that he also had set up a website warning of the scam.

Despite those efforts, the copycat version of the King’s College website remains live. That’s likely, Kammel said, because the actual university is closed. Only the owner of a trademark can sue to enforce it, she said, and it’s impossible for a closed business to exercise that right.

Still, Kammel had thought the media attention back then would have caused the website to go dark. Given that it’s still up, she wondered where the money was going for it and the other sites.

I had the same question. I hoped following my application fee to Stratford might begin to offer some clues.

What are these universities? How are they connected?

It had been more than a decade since I applied to any college, but luckily the Stratford application was straightforward. In addition to the essay, it required standard materials such as academic transcripts and proof of English proficiency for international students.

It also asked for a copy of a driver’s license or passport – and the corresponding numbers.

I wanted to see how deep this rabbit hole went, but I wanted to hold on to my identity, so I skipped the field for driver’s license number and uploaded a redacted version of my ID.

A side-by-side comparison of the application pages for the counterfeit versions of Stratford University and Jones International University. Both schools are closed, but the websites make it appear as though they accepting new students.

For the application fee, I shielded my credit by setting up a temporary card that still allowed me to track transactions. The location to send the fee to was identified only as “Wire Now.” Once I did, I was charged a foreign transaction fee – another sign pointing to offshore operators.

A few minutes later, a confirmation arrived in my inbox.

“Taking the first step is often the most difficult. We congratulate you on that!” the message read. “With the submission of your application, it will take between 3-6 weeks before we return with a decision as we screen through each applicant carefully.”

There was no way to reply to the email, no one named in it and no contact information other than a generic email already present on the university’s website.

I chose Stratford because I had written about its closure, but the process would probably have been the same for any of the other resurrected universities. Every one of their applications asks nearly identical questions: What are your goals in life? Why do you want to attend this university? And what do you hope to achieve with a university education?

They all also request similar identifying information, charge a $75 application fee and warn applicants that their personal information will be stored.

Similarities don’t end with the application forms, either. Jones International and Stratford, for example, use identical language to describe their law programs.

“The Law Center at Stratford University is ranked as one of the top two law schools in the country in offering energy-specific courses, especially those in oil and gas,” reads the Stratford description. Jones International simply subs in “Jones International.”

The counterfeit websites sometimes share content as seen in this side-by-side comparison of what are supposed to be different law programs at Stratford and Jones International universities.

Perhaps the strongest tie is that someone set up limited liability companies in California under the names of the closed institutions. Some of the companies list EEI Education as their manager, although it’s unclear whether that is the same EEI referenced in the Hozpitality postings. Those companies also share common addresses and business officers, including CEO Teoh Tong Wah and Roy Virgen Jr.

Wah doesn’t have much of a web presence that I could locate. His listed address in Singapore is a massive shopping complex. Virgen would be a different story.

Who raised these universities from the dead?

Virgen is in the business of advising and launching new colleges through his company, American Education Inc. He is listed as the CEO of at least two universities, which include American Management University and Southern Valley University.

Online, Virgen appears to lead a full life. In addition to his role as CEO of several colleges – usually a full-time job – he is identified as an adjunct lecturer at several schools, including two University of California campuses. He also had several acting and producing credits for movies, including “Amityville Shark House” and “Bermuda Island.”

I reached out to the Gmail associated with his IMDB account but did not expect a response. Within hours, he called to explain.

The movies, he said, were just for fun. He said his company often helps set up new universities, especially in California. He added that he had let colleges use his name as the leader of their institutions but stopped after some institutions did so without permission.

Asked about the resurrected colleges, Virgen offered contradictory snippets of information. He said in a phone call that a Singapore group had approached him about relaunching the Morrison brand. The group told him it had acquired the university’s name and wanted to bring it back as an accredited college. But in a later email, he said “Morrison University” had sought consultation from his group in 2021, nearly seven years after the school had closed.

On the phone call, he said he worked to set up an LLC under the Morrison University name. The plan was to restart the college in California and offer courses to students from certain professional organizations. That, he said, would allow the school to sidestep the normal bureaucracy associated with opening a new college.

Nyack College celebrated their 136th commencement at the Westchester County Center in White Plains, May 11, 2019. The university, which was renamed to Alliance, shut down in 2023.

Ultimately, Virgen said the state of California denied the application, which he attributed to news coverage of Morrison’s closure. He noted that his group would sometimes get “strange phone calls” from prospective students with questions about the university’s address, which appears to be an office building in Pasadena, California.

Virgen said he offered to set up a new university under a different name, but the Singapore group was not interested. So he cut ties, he said, and “that’s where I left it at.”

In an initial conversation, Virgen didn’t mention the other LLCs that have his name or his company’s mailing address. Asked via email why many of the closed schools had his company’s street address as their mailing address, he didn’t directly respond.

“We will take more time in vetting future clients as well as letting them know not to use our address on their websites so that our information is not copied by others,” he wrote. “Also, we are looking for ways to get illegitimate sites to stop using our programmatic information or implying that I or my business are consulting with them.”

Virgen was also listed as the CEO of Florida Grace College, a website that was taken down after I asked Virgen about it. He later said in the email that it was a school that hadn’t “got off the ground and so we let the website lapse.”

I asked for the name of his client in Singapore, but he didn’t provide it. He also did not respond when I asked whether he had helped set up California LLCs named after Jones International, Kings College, Southern Vermont College or Urbana University.

Though it was clear these universities were trying to present a distorted reality, Virgen got me no closer to knowing why. It had been two weeks and I still hadn’t heard back from Stratford, either, so it was time for me to try another school.

How many fake colleges are there online?

The Ministry of Higher Education Commission describes itself as a college accreditor, and Jones International, Southern Vermont and Urbana University claim it approved their operations. It’s not recognized by the federal government, but a review of the ministry’s membership rolls online revealed a whole new world of misrepresentations and fake colleges.

Urbana University shut down in 2020 and the site of the campus is being redeveloped. Meanwhile, someone is operating a website that makes it appear as though the school is still operating.

The ministry claims to have approved real universities such as Carnegie Mellon and the University of Phoenix – which actually are accredited by federally recognized agencies.

It also claims dozens of clearly fictitious schools, like “University of Wayne State Pennsylvania.” That school’s website appears to be an amalgamation of Wayne State University, a public school in Detroit, and Pennsylvania State University. “New York Central University” evokes New York University, with a logo reminiscent of the iconic NYU torch.

Not listed on the site are the three who claimed it: Jones International, Southern Vermont or Urbana University. Stratford is listed on the ministry’s website, but the ministry isn’t listed on Stratford’s site.

The set of universities that appear on the ministry website were more direct about the information they want from applicants. Questions about what I would do with a university education were replaced by questions about how well-connected I am. One asked whether I was a business owner, a “high profile corporate,” or an option that reads: “I belong to Royal Family.”

I opted for the student option at the City University of Michigan but couldn’t find an actual application form. I closed the window thinking that was the end of it only to receive a call later that same day from Gary Rice, who said he was from the City University of Michigan. I made it clear that I am a reporter, but that did not deter him.

Rice asked what I had studied as an undergrad – creative writing. He then suggested I would be a perfect match for a master’s degree in … creative writing.

Like the first batch of schools, City University of Michigan wanted a record of my past studies and my driver’s license. It also wanted a copy of my passport and didn’t offer alternatives when I explained that I am one of the roughly 50% of Americans who don’t have one.

Rice, who said he was a professor in charge of talking to potential students, said that once I submitted that information I could start my studies right away − no application fee required.

After we hung up, I looked up the college’s address. Google Street View turned up an empty parking structure,

There was another suitor in the wings, though. True to their word, the folks behind Stratford got back to me in about three weeks in an email that landed at 10 p.m. East Coast time. It shared “exciting news.” I had been accepted. It would take me only a year to earn my undergraduate degree at a monthly cost of $2,530.

Nothing on this journey could be simple, though. I had applied to Stratford but the email announcing my acceptance came from Vanguard College, with a web address that corresponded with a Singapore web address.

Vanguard’s website offers little about itself. It does include links to pay for degrees through other colleges, specifically the Swiss School of Management and the International American University, which is accredited in the U.S.

Serena Magnanti, the Swiss School of Management’s vice president, told me it had partnered with Vanguard College “solely for recruitment purposes.”

“Regarding the links on Vanguard College’s website, while we were not previously aware of the details, we are actively investigating the process and purpose behind them,” she wrote. “Please rest assured that we are fully committed to looking into this matter and ensuring transparency.”

The International American University didn’t respond to questions, but a staff member did cc me when they forwarded my email to the university’s president, Ryan Doan.

“Hi RD, FYI,” the message read.

The Vanguard website also features student testimonials via a YouTube video in which they seem to be referencing working with a college coaching company, not an actual college. The acceptance email implored me to reach out if I needed help. So I responded: “I thought I had applied to Stratford University, but I see you are emailing me from an address tied to Vanguard College? Can you explain?”

No response, but days later, I received another email from a Stratford University address from someone new, who urged me to check my email for my acceptance letter.

“I did receive a message from someone saying I was accepted to the university, but it came from Vanguard College,” I wrote on April 29. “Can you explain the connection there? I thought I had applied to Stratford?”

Again, crickets. But by April 30, I had a different kind of answer: The “apply now” button had disappeared from Stratford’s website and the web address for the application page returned a 404 error.

Much like the actual Stratford, the imposter seems to be closed for business − at least for now.

Chris Quintana is a reporter on the ӣƵ investigations team with a background in higher education and student loans. Contact him at cquintana@usatoday.com, @CquintanaDC on Instagram and X, or by Signal at 202-308-9021. 

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