FTC Takes Action against Alabama Operators of Copycat Military Websites
Defendants falsely posed as military recruiters to generate sales leads
HUNTSVILLE – The Alabama operators of copycat websites army.com and navyenlist.com have agreed to settle Federal Trade Commission charges that they targeted people seeking to join the armed forces and tricked them by falsely claiming to be affiliated with the military in order to generate sales leads for post-secondary schools.
The defendants, including the Huntsville-based companies Sunkey Publishing Inc. and Fanmail.com, LLC, have agreed to relinquish army.com, armyenlist.com and other domain names, and to stop the practices that they allegedly used to deceive consumers.
“We are proud to work with the Federal Trade Commission to ensure that those brave few who served in this nation’s armed forces are not the targets of false and misleading marketing,” said U.S. Attorney Jay E. Town. “Legitimate veterans charities and private veterans programs fill necessary functions for our nation’s heroes. It is our sacred obligation to ensure that those philanthropic efforts are endowed by the virtues of service, not divested of moral and legal standards. My civil and criminal divisions will continue to aggressively engage in uncovering these illegal and deceptive practices.”
FTC Chairman Joe Simons said, “Those who are considering a military career deserve to have confidence that the recruitment site is legitimate and their personal information will not be misused. The FTC will take action against any party in the lead generation ecosystem – from sellers to purchasers – that fails to comply with the law.”
The defendants in the case have used copycat military recruitment websites since at least 2010, according to the FTC’s complaint, which the Department of Justice filed today in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Alabama on behalf of the commission. Some of the websites, such as army.com and armyenlist.com, appeared to be official recruiting websites affiliated with the U.S. military.
The websites prompted consumers to submit their information in order to learn more about joining the armed forces, according to the FTC. The complaint claims that the defendants promised to use the information consumers submitted to the site only for military recruitment purposes and not to share with anyone else.
Instead, the FTC charged that the defendants sold the information as marketing leads to post-secondary schools for $15 to $40 per lead.
In addition, people who submitted their information allegedly received follow-up phone calls from telemarketers who continued the misrepresentations by posing as members of the military, touting specific schools, and giving consumers the false impression that the U.S. military actually endorsed those schools.
This action is part of the FTC’s effort to combat government imposter schemes, the most frequent type of fraud complaint from military consumers in the FTC's Consumer Sentinel database. It also builds on the agency’s work in the area of lead generation, including its examination of various players involved.
The FTC charged the defendants with violating the FTC Act and the FTC’s Telemarketing Sales Rule (TSR). The agency also alleged that they violated the Do Not Call provisions of the TSR by placing hundreds of thousands of illegal telemarketing calls to phone numbers on the National Do Not Call Registry and by failing to pay required fees.
The two proposed orders settling the FTC’s charges require the defendants to turn over to the FTC websites used to deceive consumers, including army.com and armyenlist.com. Turnover of these websites partially satisfies the civil penalty judgments of $11.1 million against Sunkey and $1 million against Fanmail. The judgments are otherwise suspended due to defendants’ inability to pay; however, if the defendants are later found to have misrepresented their financial condition to the FTC, the full amount of the penalty would become due.
The proposed orders also ban the defendants from misrepresenting a military affiliation, the endorsement of particular schools by the military, or the extent to which they share consumers’ personal information. They require the defendants to disclose that their sites are not official recruiting websites of the U.S. military, to solicit consumers’ acknowledgement of that fact, and to get permission to disclose consumer information collected in connection with lead generation for any purpose. The defendants also must notify the companies that bought consumer data from the defendants of the FTC’s allegations and instruct the companies to stop using the information.
The first proposed order settles the FTC’s charges against Sunkey Publishing Inc.; Sun Key Publishing, LLC; Wheredata, LLC; and Christopher Upp, individually and as an officer of the corporate defendants; and Mark Van Dyke, individually and as an officer of the corporate defendants. The second proposed order settles the FTC’s charges against Fanmail.com, LLC; and Lon Brolliar and Andrew Dorman, individually and as officers of Fanmail.com, LLC.
The FTC has education material to help consumers avoid trouble from imposters and to safeguard their personal information:
- Before you fill out forms or applications on a site, find out more about who is actually requesting your information and for what purpose by doing an online search for the site operator with words like “complaint” or “review.”
- If you think you have gotten a call from a government imposter, report it to the FTC at FTC.gov/complaint.