December 6, 2004 11:46 AM PST

Men sued for spam pushing fake diplomas

Pennsylvania's attorney general on Monday sued two men for allegedly violating state law by sending out junk e-mail touting an online university that grants diplomas in 72 hours.

Court documents accuse the men of conducting a "massive illegal spam campaign" that used misleading subject lines, forged e-mail addresses and random dictionary words to thwart spam filters and sell "bogus academic degrees" from Trinity Southern University.

Trinity Southern University, which is not accredited by any recognized organization and claims to be based in Dallas, boasts that its degrees require "no classes to attend--no tests to take!" Doctoral degrees can be purchased online for $599, and an "executive MBA" program costs $499.

Pennsylvania is asking for an injunction against Alton Scott Poe, who claimed to be the school's "dean of admissions," and co-defendant Craig Barton Poe. The state is also requesting civil fines starting at $1,000 for each violation of the state's consumer protection law. Neither defendant could be reached for comment Monday.

Trinity Southern University was at the heart of a scandal that erupted in Massachusetts last year, when the head of the state's infectious-disease laboratory--an adjunct lecturer at Harvard University--apologized for listing a Ph.D. from Trinity on his resume. Trinity appears on the Michigan state government's list of unaccredited universities granting degrees that are not accepted for civil service jobs.

"These diplomas have no value in the job market except to harm genuinely accredited colleges and universities and their online academic programs," Pennsylvania Attorney General Jerry Pappert said in a statement. Pappert said one investigator was able to obtain a degree for a pet cat.

Trinity Southern University is not affiliated with Trinity University, an accredited school in San Antonio, Texas.

The state's complaint relies on Pennsylvania's consumer protection law, not the federal Can-Spam statute. The consumer protection law seeks only civil penalties and fines, not criminal sanctions.

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