WASHINGTON -- The Department of Veterans Affairs has lost the domain rights to GIBill.com, which some advocates fear could open the potential for scammers to target veterans.
The VA appeared to have GIBill.com at least through May 20, according to Wayback, which archives screenshots of websites. Yet VA officials contend the domain was lost during the administration of former President Barack Obama, and the agency did not say whether it intends to regain control of the site.
"VA acquired this domain as part of a court settlement in 2012," Christina Noel, a spokeswoman for the department, said in a statement. "Unfortunately, VA lost ownership of it during the Obama administration in 2015 because the person in charge of maintaining the domain left VA service and VA leaders at the time had no continuity plan in place."
Nearly a decade ago, GIBill.com was owned by QuintStreet, an online marketing firm whose clients included a host of for-profit colleges. In 2012, the marketing firm had to squash the website and pay $2.5 million in penalties for deceptive advertising practices aimed at student veterans. At the time, Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway called the company's use of GIBill.com "the most egregious example" that he has seen of misinformation and greed directed at veterans.
The suit led the VA to trademark "GI Bill" in late 2012. Curtis Coy, the VA deputy undersecretary for economic opportunity at the time, said the move gives the VA "a mechanism to pursue any malfeasance."
It is unclear who owns GIBill.com now, but the domain was bought in August, according to WhoIs, a domain registration tool that tracks the dates that domains were purchased and when they expire. GIBill.com does not currently have the appearance of a developed website, but there are some ads on it that forward users to public and for-profit universities.
Some lawmakers and advocates are urging the VA to get the website back because they are worried the status of the site could prompt a group to try again to take advantage of student veterans.
"It is imperative VA immediately secure GIBill.com," said Carrie Wofford, president of Veterans Educations Success, an advocacy group. "There are bad companies that get paid by for-profit colleges to trick veterans into handing over their GI Bill for a subpar education, just like there were in 2012 when VA first took GIBill.com away from a bad company. We didn't lead this fight in 2012 only to concede progress eight years later."
Conway, who led a bipartisan coalition of 20 state attorneys general in the 2012 suit, subpoenaed more than a half-dozen for-profit colleges, seeking information about their student loan default rates, recruitment practices and job placements. The investigation was prompted after Conway's office received complaints from students at some for-profit colleges who said they went into debt and did not receive the degrees or job placements promised.
Veterans have long been the targets of aggressive recruiting by for-profit colleges, which are required to get at least 10% of their revenues outside of federal student loans or Pell grants. The so-called "90/10 loophole" allows veterans' benefits to count toward that 10%.
Because of this loophole, the for-profit school industry has drawn intense scrutiny among some lawmakers and veteran advocates for conducting questionable business practices to recruit veterans. Some for-profit schools such as the University of Phoenix have been slapped with massive fines for deceptive marketing practices toward GI Bill recipients.
"Unfortunately, predatory schools continue to target student veterans," said Rep. Mike Levin, D-Calif., the chairman of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs subpanel on economic opportunity. "We must make sure that veterans have accurate information about the quality of the education they receive, and VA must do more to crack down on these predatory schools. That includes those who have used platforms like GIBill.com to scam veterans. I hope VA will step up and protect student veterans from predatory organizations taking advantage of the GIBill.com domain."
At the time of the lawsuit, QuintStreet's GIBill.com masqueraded as an official VA website, steering veterans to for-profit colleges. It also gave the impression that the colleges it advertised were the only schools at which veterans could fully utilize their GI Bill benefits, according to a 2012 statement from the late-Delaware Attorney General Beau Biden.
"We're acting to ensure that service members are not deceived by companies who are more interested in adding to their bottom line than in providing clear information to soldiers about the educational benefits they have earned while protecting us," Biden said in a 2012 statement.
After the settlement, Conway said the investigation included a review of 8,000 emails to QuintStreet through the GIBill.com site, many of which came from veterans who thought they were communicating with VA officials. The marketing firm consistently redirected visitors to a small group of for-profit schools.
All domain purchases have an end date. If lapsed, there are companies that use algorithms to automatically purchase lapsed website addresses. It remains unclear whether this is what happened to GIBill.com. The VA did not have GIBill.com on an auto-renewal, which is how most companies and organizations keep their websites secured. While the domain could eventually end up in an online auction, it is unclear how much GIBill.com is worth, though domains with common phrases can be sold for tens of thousands of dollars.
When the VA secured the domain after the 2012 lawsuit, it used GIBill.com to redirect veterans to the agency's official site. All official VA sites have ".gov" addresses. It is common practice for companies and organizations to secure domains similar to their official sites to prevent scams and protect their intellectual property.
Beyond scammers, foreign agents are increasingly targeting veterans online. Last year, Vietnam Veterans of America, a nonprofit advocacy group, released a report that found "persistent, pervasive, and coordinated online targeting of American service members, veterans, and their families by foreign entities who seek to disrupt American democracy."
The VA, the federal government's second-largest agency, is tasked with managing and protecting hundreds of thousands of federal scholarships, and some argue the GIBill.com issue signals the VA is not ready for the modern age.
"It's a malignant and pervasive disregard for the cyber-hygiene of veterans -- something that's key to 21st-century health care," said Kristopher Goldsmith, president of the advocacy group High Ground Veterans and who penned the VVA report when he was with that organization.