Pennsylvania's attorney general has filed a civil lawsuit against an Allentown, Pa., couple accused of diverting in excess of $100,000 from the international "foreign exchange student" business they operated.
Attorney General Tom Corbett said the lawsuit was filed against Timothy H. Sweet and Tina Sweet, doing business as United Student Exchange and United International Studies.
According to the lawsuit, the Sweets brought more than 50 foreign students to Pennsylvania with promises of carefully selected host families and placement at private schools. They are accused of diverting more than $100,000 which was intended to pay for school tuitions and to support the students while they were in the United States.
"The Sweets and their business - United Student Exchange - took advantage of families hoping to send their children to America to enjoy once-in-a-lifetime educational experiences," Corbett said. "Instead, visiting students and their U.S. host families were met with empty promises and disappointment - left to fend for themselves by a business that claimed to be 'uniting the world with Christ, one student at a time'."
Corbett said his office has also filed a motion for a preliminary injunction prohibiting the Sweets from bringing additional foreign students into the United States, along with a request that the court order an immediate freeze of any bank accounts and other assets controlled by the Sweets, believed to contain money that has been paid for program fees, tuition and host family payments.
According to the lawsuit, the Sweets, operating as United Student Exchange, advertised the placement of exchange students in Christian communities. Exchange students were primarily recruited in Korea.
Currently, the program is believed to have 56 students, from 8th through 12th grade, in the U.S., with the majority of the students located in Lehigh, Berks and Lancaster counties.
Corbett said that exchange students and their families were promised a "dedicated" and "full service" program to support the students during their visit, using carefully screened host families that were pre-selected for the students.
According to the lawsuit, arriving students often learned that their host families had not yet been recruited. Foreign students without a host family were placed in "temporary" homes or housed in the Sweets home, as many as eight students at a time.
Corbett said that the Sweets and United Student Exchange are also accused of recruiting host families under false pretenses -- claiming that pre-arranged host families had suffered an illness or had a previously scheduled activity, such as a vacation, which required the temporary relocation of a visiting student.
Host families recruited after the arrival of students did not complete a "host family application form," and were not required to supply references or undergo a background check, or only received a cursory review, contrary to advertised claims by the Sweets about their family screening and selection process.
According to the United Student Exchange website, maintained by the Sweets, visiting students would be offered free trips throughout the year, so that they could see other parts of America, along with other services which were not provided.
In addition, host families were also told that United Student Exchange was dedicated to providing assistance to the visiting students during their stay, though families were allegedly left without support -- with the Sweets failing to reply to email messages or respond to telephone calls.
Corbett said the families of visiting students paid a "service fee" of $3,500 to the Sweets and United Student Exchange in order to locate a school and host family. The Sweets also received an additional $2,500 fee, intended to pay the host family for their expenses, along with added costs for school tuition. Full payment of all fees was required prior to the students' arrival in the United States.
According to the lawsuit, the majority of payments were made directly to the Sweets and United Student Exchange, who maintained control over the balance of the funds. Despite pre-payment of all school tuition and host family fees, a number of schools and host families report receiving only minimal payments from the Sweets, or no payment at all.
Additionally, the lawsuit states that complaints from students, host families and schools about unpaid expenses or missing funds were occasionally met by threats from the Sweets to send visiting students home prior to the end of their 10-month stay -- resulting in the forfeiture of all payments and also sign of dishonor for families whose children had not completed the school year.
Corbett noted that United Student Exchange and other related businesses names used by the Sweets have not been registered with the Pennsylvnia Department of State, as required for any fictitious business name.
The Sweets and their businesses are also not recognized sponsors under the federal J-1 Exchange Visitor Visa program, which is closely supervised by the U.S. State Department and the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.
Corbett said that the violations of the Consumer Protection Law listed in the civil lawsuit filed against the Sweets include:
Failure to pay host families, as promised.
Failure to pay school tuition, as promised.
Misrepresentation of support to students and host families.
Contract terms in violation of Consumer Protection Law.
Failure to register fictitious business names. Corbett said the civil lawsuit filed against the Sweets and their businesses seeks the following:
Permanently prohibit the Sweets and their companies from placing additional foreign students in the U.S.
Permanently prohibit the Sweets from housing foreign students at their residence.
Prevent the forced return of any student prior to the end of their contracted visit to the United States.
Declare that illegal sections of exchange student contracts are null and void.
Provide all host families and schools with all payments collected by the Sweets and their companies which were intended for tuition and host expenses.
Civil penalties of $1,000 for each violation of the Consumer Protection Law, increasing to $3,000 for each violation involving a victim over 60 years old.
Prohibit the Sweets and their businesses from operating in Pennsylvania until all restitution, costs and civil penalties have been paid.
Corbett said that a court order, obtained on March 6, 2008, prevents the Sweets from engaging in any further student exchange activities, prohibits them from housing students in their home and prevents them from involuntarily returning students to their home countries.
Corbett said the court order also requires the Sweets to preserve all business and financial records and open all records and accounts to investigators from the Attorney General's Office. Additionally, the Sweets are subject to court-ordered restrictions on the withdrawal of funds from various bank accounts.
Corbett encouraged any student, host family or school experiencing difficulty with the Sweets, United Student Exchange or United International Studies to contact the Attorney General's Bureau of Consumer Protection at 1-800-441-2555 (inside Pennsylvania) or the Allentown Regional Office of the Bureau of Consumer Protection at 610-821-6690.