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Raleigh, NC -
GIBill.com, an official-looking website that steered military veterans to expensive for-profit schools, will turn its site over to the Department of Veterans Affairs and pay $2.5 million to North Carolina and 19 other states for misleading veterans and service members, Attorney General Roy Cooper announced Wednesday.
"Websites that masquerade as official government sites are deceptive and confusing to consumers," Cooper said. "Our military veterans deserve our respect and our thanks, and they also deserve accurate information about their educational benefits so they can make the best decisions for their future."
Cooper and the other attorneys general allege that QuinStreet, Inc., the owner of GIBill.com and similar sites, violated consumer protection laws with its deceptive websites that generate leads primarily for the for-profit education industry. Several of the company's sites targeting military service members and veterans, including GIBill.com, appeared to be operated, owned or endorsed by the U.S. government or military, when in fact the sites are run by a private company that is paid to promote for-profit schools.
The GI Bill is the common name for the federal law that provides educational benefits for veterans who have served in the United States military.
North Carolina and the other states found that the misleading sites operated by QuinStreet gave the impression that the schools listed as "eligible GI Bill schools" were the only schools where veterans could use their educational benefits. The list consisted of QuinStreet clients only, which were primarily for-profit colleges, when in fact GI Bill benefits can be used at a wide variety of colleges, universities, trade and other schools across the country, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.
State attorneys general and other consumer advocates have seen for-profit colleges intensify their efforts to recruit military veterans since 2008, when Congress enacted the Post 9/11 GI Bill making billions of dollars in educational benefits available for veterans and their families. According to a February 2011 General Accounting Office report, $9 billion in educational benefits were provided to service members and veterans in Fiscal Year 2010. Of 20 for-profit colleges analyzed by the U.S. Senate HELP Committee, total military educational benefits increased from $66.6 million in 2006 to a projected $521.2 million in 2010, an increase of 683 percent. For-profit colleges find military members so attractive in part because their benefits don't count toward the business' 90 percent cap on federal Department of Education funding.
As part of the settlement, QuinStreet will relinquish ownership and control of the website GIBill.com to the Department of Veterans Affairs, which will use it to provide accurate information about the GI Bill and educate service members about the benefits available to them under the program. QuinStreet will also shut down and cease to use any domain names that include the term GI Bill. As part of the agreement, QuinStreet will pay the states a total of $2.5 million to settle the consumer protection claims, including $225,000 to North Carolina.
North Carolina was part of the group that negotiated the enforcement action, which is a result of an ongoing investigation of the recruiting and business practices of some for-profit colleges by a group of state attorneys general.
Other terms of the settlement
All social media accounts associated with GIBill.com will be shut down.
All QuinStreet military-related sites will make it clear that the sites are not owned or operated by the U.S. government.
All QuinStreet military-related sites will disclose that the schools listed are not the only schools that accept GI Bill benefits, and will include links to the VA's page that provides a complete list of eligible schools.
All of QuinStreet's education-related websites will disclose that the schools listed are advertisers or pay to appear on the sites.
QuinStreet will no longer be able to make any claims that the information presented on the site is "neutral" or "unbiased" or that schools are "top" or "best" unless the information comes from an independent source.
All QuinStreet education-related sites must have an "About us" page and an FAQ page that clearly explains the site is owned by QuinStreet and contains identifying information about the company and its business operations.