Dallas-based online university Trinity Southern faces a consumer fraud lawsuit filed by the Pennsylvania Attorney General's Office after a sting operation that won an MBA degree for an investigator's cat.

Investigators put together a bogus resume for Colby Nolan -- a deputy attorney general's six-year-old cat. With the resume and $299 in hand, the online university decided to award Colby an MBA degree, which came with a diploma, a list of course work, and a 3.5 grade point average.

Pennsylvania Attorney General Jerry Pappert's lawsuit names four defendants of engaging in an elaborate scheme to promote and sell bogus academic degrees by hijacking the Internet Protocol (IP) addresses of more than 60 Pennsylvania businesses and one state government office without their knowledge and using them to send spam.

The defendants are Trinity Southern University (TSU), Plano, Texas; Innovative Cellular and Wireless Inc. (ICW), Corpus Christi, Texas; brothers Craig Barton Poe, Frisco, Texas and Alton Scott Poe, Saint Cloud, Florida.

The Scam

According to investigators, beginning in January 2004, the defendants transmitted more than 18,000 illegal e-mail messages to promote the sale of online academic degrees from Trinity Southern University. The website link that was included in the e-mails claimed that for a fee between $299 and $499 consumers can purchase a Bachelors, Masters, Executive Masters or Ph.D. degree in several fields including English, Business Administration and Biology.

The complaint accuses the defendants of fraudulently claiming that Trinity Southern University:

• Is a legitimate institution that can issue academic undergraduate, graduate and doctoral degrees in several majors.

• Offers legitimate transcripts including a list of classes, grades and a final grade point average or GPA.

• Is accredited by Recoleta University in Argentina when no such university exists.

• Is privately accredited by NAPLAC.org when there is no organization by that name. In addition the address of the accreditation letter belongs to defendant Alton Scott Poe.

• Will verify information provided by consumers to be used in the evaluation process to grant degrees or to recommend that consumers are eligible for more advanced degrees.

• Will prosecute or revoke the degrees of those who withhold information or provide false information for admission and enrollment.

Pappert said undercover agents contacted the defendants online to obtain a $299 Bachelors Degree in Business Administration for Colby Nolan, the cat. After the review and evaluation process was completed the defendants replied to the agents e-mail to inform Colby that his work experience qualified him to receive an Executive MBA, not the bachelors degree that was requested.

Within several weeks the defendants awarded an Executive MBA to Colby Nolan. The official looking diploma arrived on professional stock paper and included an embossed gold seal from TSU with the signatures of the university president and dean.

For an additional $99 fee, the agent requested the cats transcript. The document arrived and included Colbys graduation date, student number and a GPA of 3.5. The transcript also included the individual courses Colby passed including economics, accounting and finance along with the corresponding grades (all As and Bs) and the credit hours.

The Defendants

Alton Scott Poe is purportedly the Dean of Admissions and Vice Chancellor of TSU. Craig Barton Poe is the President of ICW, which handles the billing and credit card processing for the sale of TSU academic degrees.

Craig Poe also uses the alias Desmond Jones with a fictitious residential address in Scranton, Pennsylvania. In addition, all of the websites advertised in the alleged scheme are registered to Desmond Jones.

The defendants are accused of violating Pennsylvanias Unsolicited Telecommunication Advertisement Act and Unfair Trade Practices and Consumer Protection Law.

I filed this lawsuit to stop a massive illegal spam campaign that not only defrauded consumers and employers, but damaged the reputations of numerous Pennsylvania businesses across 24 counties and a government office, Pappert said. These legitimate outfits unknowingly became third party hosts in the scheme when their servers and IP addresses were hijacked to transmit the illegal spam.

The Spam

The complaint claims that more than 300 of the e-mails were sent to consumers without authorization through the servers of more than 60 Pennsylvania businesses and the Pennsylvania State Senate. Each e-mail typically included a fictitious name and web address for the sender.

Investigators said consumers who received the unwanted spam may have complained to the unsuspecting sender electronically or telephoned the business identified in the from line to speak directly to the person listed as the sender. The forged identification and routing information prevented consumers from tracing the spam back to the defendants.

In addition, random words were inserted in the spam messages to confuse and bypass certain available spam filtering technology, according to the complaint. Its possible that some companies first learned about the scam from consumers.

Pappert said many spam recipients likely opened the e-mail due to a misleading subject line in the header of the message. For example, many of the illegal e-mails contained the words Virus Alert in the subject line, and Internet Virus Department in the from line.

The message instructed consumers to open a link that contained the following statement: We have detected a possible computer virus on your computer. You must open the details of the report within 24 hours or we will be forced to shut down your Internet service.

The virus alert subject line was a ruse to get consumers to pay attention to the e-mail and not delete it, Pappert said. Those who opened the phony message and clicked on the link immediately knew that it had nothing to do with a computer virus, but was instead a sales pitch for the defendants online degrees. Under Pennsylvania law, this type of e-mail is deceptive and illegal. This activity not only flooded e-mail systems and increased operational costs, but hurt the reputations of dozens of businesses that were wrongfully accused of sending illegal spam.

It is clear to us that this degree service is not designed for entertainment purposes but to deceive consumers and/or prospective employers into believing that TSU graduates have legitimately earned a Bachelors, Masters or Ph.D. degree in a particular field of study, Pappert said. These diplomas have no value in the job market except to harm genuinely accredited colleges and universities and their online academic programs.