Even with a master’s degree in biotechnology, Shermeen Masood, a 34-year-old living in Oman, struggled for years to find a job. With a baby on the way and an out-of-country move ahead of her, she thought a doctorate would set her apart and help her get hired.
When an online school called City University of New Orleans told her she had been awarded a scholarship to attend its virtual doctorate program — which it said was part of the University of New Orleans — she was overjoyed. After a phone call with someone who claimed to be performing a background check on behalf of Oman’s embassy in Washington, she gladly paid what the university told her was a greatly reduced fee: $1,750.
But despite make that payment and several more, Masood never got to take a class. She realizes she’s been had.
“It wasn’t just the money,” she said in an interview from Nairobi, Kenya, where she now lives with her husband and toddler. “It was my dream shattering into pieces.”
City University of New Orleans, a fake online university claiming to be an accredited virtual school affiliated with the University of New Orleans, has been scamming thousands of dollars from people since at least the beginning of last year, according to prospective students who say they paid fees but never began classes.
UNO officials are aware of the situation and say they’ve been trying to take action, with limited success.
Trying ‘to mislead and prey upon’ students
Adam Norris, a UNO spokesperson, said the university has received complaints from at least four students who thought they were paying for an online UNO degree. UNO has no affiliation with CUNO.
“The University of New Orleans is concerned that CUNO is using UNO’s name recognition and visual identity to mislead and prey upon unsuspecting students and families,” Norris said.
Norris said that elements of the CUNO and UNO websites are “strikingly similar” and that CUNO had used UNO’s logo, letterhead and name in email communications with students “in an attempt to assert its legitimacy and entice payment,” Norris said.
He said UNO staff members have tried to contact CUNO but have not heard back. UNO referred the complaints they received to state Attorney General Jeff Landry’s office, which told them the matter would be referred to the FBI if warranted, Norris said.
Landry’s office said did not immediately respond to emails or phone calls.
Since March of last year, the Federal Trade Commission has received five complaints of fraud about City University New Orleans, according to public records. The FBI’s New Orleans office declined to answer any questions about potential investigations or offer any other comment.
On its website, CUNO claims to have 55,000 enrolled students, 48,000 of whom are international. It purports to offer dozens of degrees, including an undergraduate diploma in a six month self-paced program and multiple doctorate degree options, all of which are advertised as “accredited.”
But the institution is not listed in the Department of Education’s database of accredited postsecondary institutions and programs, nor is it listed by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, the body that accredits higher education institutions in the South. The CUNO website has a link to an online certificate of accreditation from the Regional Council for the Accreditation of American Institutes, which is not recognized by the U.S. Department of Education and has a non-working phone number.
The Times-Picayune | The Advocate called a number associated with CUNO that was provided by a student who said they were scammed. A man who identified himself as Joshua Sanders answered, describing himself as a “student advisor” at CUNO. He said the school is “an online university” that it is accredited by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation. While that body indeed accredits institutions in the U.S., CUNO is not among them.
Phony accreditation claims are a hallmark of online scammers, said Ralph Russo, a cybersecurity expert and director of Tulane University’s school of professional advancement information technology programs.
“This type of scam is as old as the hills, but it’s very much enabled by technology,” he said.
The FBI said in a report released March 2021 that there had been a substantial increase in complaints of suspected internet crime from 2019 to 2020, including phishing scams, non-payment/non-delivery scams and extortion.
In online education scams, a few people can make themselves seem like a large institution at relatively little cost by buying a domain name, a Google phone number and even a building, he said. Russo pointed to the Saint Regis University scam of 2005, when a federal investigation uncovered a booming billion-dollar operation distributing bogus diplomas.
If an offer seems too good to be true, it usually is, Russo said. Oftentimes, fake colleges offer degrees in an impossibly short amount of time and advertise minimal interaction with professors. Their promotional materials often include typos and poor grammar.
There were other red flags with CUNO. The website points interested students to a New Orleans address, 3744 Woodland Ave., which is an empty lot next to the University of Holy Cross in Algiers.
And the website is full of outlandish, poorly written claims. For instance: “Research Team Of CUNO Making Into Headlines Once Again On Their Remarkable Findings” and “Running Ahead Of Time, CUNO Has The Highest Number Of Enrolled Students In 2020 Across The Globe.”
Russo said COVID and the sudden shift to virtual operations for many aspects of life created a bigger pool for online fraud victims.
“People were pushed online in a hurry due to the pandemic,” he said. “These people were perhaps more susceptible to online scams because they weren’t as technologically savvy.”
A dream deferred
For Masood, the offer at first seemed legitimate. The number of the person who performed the background check matched a number listed on the Oman embassy website, and she even did a virtual onboarding and orientation.
Communications from CUNO included a blue circular logo similar to that used by University of New Orleans with the school’s name written around the logo and a building in the middle of the circle. A man she spoke with told her he was an admissions officer; he assured her she would be attending UNO virtually and could begin her three year doctorate degree in nutrition and health sciences whenever she wanted.
But when she tried to begin her studies after moving to Kenya, she was told her acceptance was no longer valid and she would have to pony up more money. She paid a $299 fee to register again, but has since been contacted numerous times asking her to pay more fees. She doesn’t have the funds to keep paying and has given up hope of ever getting her money back.
She’s never taken a class at CUNO and at this point understands she never will, even after paying more than $2,000.
“They latch onto somebody’s dream and they know how to use it,” said Russo, the cybersecurity expert. “They sell you the dream.”