Students at Stafford High School had a problem. Their school didn’t have any courses. Their diplomas were fake, rejected by colleges and employers. And the students collectively paid millions of dollars for the privilege of enrolling in the school and others like it.
Stafford High School is just one in a network of for-profit schools with deliberately generic names, including “Lincoln High School,” “County High School,” and “Metro High School.” None of these schools are real, the federal government says. In a Feb. 8 lawsuit, the Federal Trade Commission accused three Arizona men of running the ring of online high schools, lying about the programs’ accreditations, and passing off fraudulent graduation packages.
But the FTC’s case touches just one corner of a multi-year, multi-pronged scam that allegedly raked in millions for fake diplomas, fake drug test cheats, and bad web design.
The FTC suit names three companies: Capitol Network Distance Learning Programs, Veritas Sales, and Capital Network Digital Licensing Programs. The companies’ three owners, Nicholas Pollicino, Adam Pollicino, and Anthony Clavien, are also named.
Despite their lack of consensus on how to spell “Capital,” the three companies allegedly worked together under the Capitol Network Distance Learning Programs banner to peddle fake U.S. high school diplomas in English and Spanish.
“Follow Us On Twitter,” reads a button on a now-defunct CNDLP page, underneath a graphic displaying which credit cards the company accepts. The CNDLP tweeted 55 times on May 17, 2010, and never again.
The CNDLP has 10 Twitter followers, four of whom are fake, TwitterAudit estimates. But the half-fake account might be the most authentic thing to the CNDLP’s name.
“In reality, Defendants do not operate accredited online high schools and do not issue valid high school credentials,” the FTC claims in its suit. “Consumers are only required to pay a fee and pass a nominal test in order to obtain a ‘diploma.’”
The test is even easier than “nominal.” The CNDLP supplemented its online tests with a now-deleted “review guide,” which included all the correct answers.
“Defendants’ programs require no coursework or preparation before taking the test, and the test itself offers hints to help consumers select the correct answers,” the FTC claims. “As a result, Defendants’ so-called diplomas are virtually worthless. In numerous instances, consumers who attempt to enroll in college, apply for jobs, or join the military using Defendants’ diplomas learn that Defendants’ programs are unaccredited and that the diplomas are invalid.”
The CNDLP did not respond to emails at multiple addresses. Two phone numbers listed for the CNDLP were not in service.
“Defendants have charged between $135 to $249 for their purported services, and have taken in millions of dollars from consumers,” the FTC charges.
But $249 diplomas are only one of the defendants’ ventures. Veritas Sales, Inc., one of the companies listed in the FTC complaint also owns a handful of websites purporting to sell products that will help users pass drug tests.
So-called herbal drug cleanses like the $179.95 “Extreme User Program” sold on Veritas-owned site Pass A Drug Test appear to be anything but scientifically tested. Users have subsequently complained that the treatments, which allegedly purify the body of illegal substances in advance of a drug test, are a scam. Nevertheless, Veritas’ companies claim to be the real deal.
“WARNING! Don't take a risk with cheap drug test products sold by no name companies,” Pass A Drug Test cautions. “Most detox websites are scams with fake promises and don't care if you pass your drug test once they get your money.”
None of Veritas’ drug cleanse companies—including passadrugtest.com, passyourtest.com, 24hourdetox.com, and pass-your-drug-test.com—disclose their products’ ingredients as legally required for dietary supplements. Veritas did not respond to a Daily Beast inquiry about their products’ ingredients.
While the FTC does not mention Veritas’ drug ventures in its suit, peeved customers have taken their complaints to the Better Business Bureau.
“I spent $127 for their cleansing kit in order to pass a urine test for a job, which states a 100% money back guarantee if you fail your test,” one customer writes. “I failed the test and sent in the results of the test plus proof of purchase via mail. I complied with their procedures but the customer service rep claims I mailed in a ‘soiled’ test and that I was not eligible for a refund. The rep called me ‘disgusting’ and threw away my test results and proof of purchase.”
Veritas is owned by Adam Pollicino and Anthony Clavien, two of the three defendants in the FTC case. The third defendant, Nick Pollicino, allegedly worked with the other two to register their slew of website domains.
"The domain registration and hosting fees for Defendants’ websites are often paid for with Defendant N. Pollicino’s personal credit cards," the FTC says.
Adam Pollicino and Anthony Clavien have allegedly run other shady businesses together. Clavien is the former president of Mission E Commerce, a web design company where customers complained that he and Pollicino cut and run with their money.
“After investing our seed capital we showed up to their office the place was cleared out and there was a note on the door stating that police were notified and property was seized. This company is the living definition of scam,” a one-star Yelp review reads. “I caution everyone to not do business with anyone in this company especially Adam Pollicino.”
“I paid Mission ECommerce $10,500 to create a website for my company,” a complaint on Ripoff Report reads. “They took my deposit and ran for the hills. Not only that, they told me to go fc&k myself and see you in court!!! Come to find out, they do this so often that they started their own legal firm called Legal Ace!!!”
Legal Ace LLC—where Clavien is variously listed as a consultant and owner, and Pollicino is listed as CTO—also appears defunct. The website listed on Legal Ace’s Yelp page has since been taken down, and two phone numbers listed for the company were not in service.
The FTC does not target the defendants’ other alleged scams. But one lawsuit might be enough; the FTC has a history of suing shady for-profit education groups into financial ruin.
In July, the agency launched an investigation of the Apollo Education Group, the parent company of massive online educator Phoenix University. According to the FTC, Apollo Education had run a tidy business recruiting veterans, raking in millions in GI Bill benefits, and leaving the students in serious debt. The FTC’s suit sent Apollo’s stocks into an immediate plummet.
A disclaimer on the CLDNLP’s now-defunct mydiplomanow.com might have foreseen the the group’s impending legal troubles.
“I understand that the program offered will not give me the right to represent myself as a graduate of a traditional high school, an accredited high school program or the holder of an accredited degree and I am participating in the program for the sole purpose of self improvement,” the small print reads.
This warning is hidden at the bottom of the page, under banners reading “MONEY BACK GUARANTEE!” and “HAPPY CUSTOMERS!”
The FTC uses these “purported customer testimonials” in its case, implying that each of them is as fake as the degree they advertise.
“I am so happy I found your online school after almost being scammed by a fake high school not even in the United States!” one of seven testimonials on the Paramont High School Online page reads.
Its supposed author is a Justin T. from San Diego, though his testimonial is eerily similar to the other six in terms of sentence structure, heavy reliance on exclamation points, and repeated insistence that the school is real.
“I was able to pass your test and just received my diploma package—everything looks in order and professional.”