Sleuthing by Microsoft helps authorities track down brothers suspected of running diploma mill

Friday, December 10th 2004, 9:07 am
By: News On 6

FRISCO, Texas (AP) _ Some sleuthing by software giant Microsoft Corp. helped track down two brothers who authorities say sold bogus college degrees over the Internet, including an MBA that was issued to a housecat.

Officials in Pennsylvania cracked the case, tracking down the source of thousands of unsolicited e-mails. This week, they filed a lawsuit to shut down Trinity Southern University, run by Crain Barton Poe, 35, of Frisco, and Alton Scott Poe, 40, of St. Cloud, Fla.

Trinity Southern sent 18,000 e-mails that appeared to come from legitimate outfits such as cable operator Comcast Corp., Pennsylvania State University and the Pennsylvania Senate, said Barbara Petito, a spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania attorney general's office.

Heeding complaints from the institutions about the hijacking of their Web sites, Microsoft helped track the e-mails to the Poes, Petito said.

Pennsylvania authorities sued the Poes after plunking down $398 to get an MBA for a cat named Colby.

Trinity Southern University had listed various addresses and claimed to be accredited by a university in Argentina and an education association, both of which turned out to be fictitious. The school's Web site was not operating Thursday.

There was no answer Thursday at Craig Poe's home. A phone number for Alton Poe had been disconnected.

Texas education officials spent a year trying to identify the Poes after getting complaints from a handful of employers who said job applicants claimed to hold degrees from Trinity Southern. They expect to refer the matter to the state attorney general or local prosecutors.

The operation violated state laws by offering degrees from an unaccredited school and using the term ``university'' in its name, said David Linkletter, who tracks school certification for the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.

Linkletter looked at Trinity Southern's Web site and e-mails and tried to track the operation through phone numbers, which changed frequently.

``We did some digging around and weren't able to find out who was responsible,'' Linkletter said. ``Now we have what we need _ the names of the players.''

Trinity Southern was in the news last year when the director of the Massachusetts infectious-disease laboratory admitted he bought a doctorate from the school. The man continues to direct the lab.