The Department of Veterans Affairs is asking the Department of Justice to step in after it lost control of the domain "GIBill.com," a site that has previously been used by scammers.
"As the owner of the registered trademark 'GI Bill,' VA has referred the matter to the Department of Justice to reclaim the GIBill.com domain in accordance with the Uniform Domain Name Dispute Resolution Policy," Joe Williams, a spokesman for the agency, said Wednesday.
The VA seemingly lost the domain rights to GIBill.com last year, drawing frustration from some lawmakers and veteran advocates. Now, some advocates are urging President Joe Biden's administration to reacquire the domain to protect beneficiaries from scammers and deceptive marketers.
Veterans Education Success, a nonpartisan veteran advocacy group, sent a letter to Biden last week urging him to take steps to expand GI Bill protections, including reclaiming the lost domain GIBill.com, which has in the past been used by the for-profit education industry to deceive veterans.
The VA appeared to own the website at least as of May 20 last year, according to the Wayback Machine internet archive, which stores website screenshots. The department seems to have lost control of the domain last June. The URL does not currently forward to a website, and the domain is being withheld by an unidentified owner.
A decade ago, GIBill.com was owned by QuinStreet, an online marketing firm whose clients included a vast roster of for-profit schools. The firm used the website to masquerade as the VA, directing veterans to for-profit schools and falsely telling beneficiaries that students could get the most out of their education benefits at the schools it advertised.
A coalition of 20 attorneys general -- including then-Delaware AG Beau Biden, the president's late son -- filed a lawsuit to take the URL away from scammers, which led the VA to trademark the term "GI Bill" in 2012.
"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," Beau Biden said in a 2012 statement.
That year, QuinStreet was forced to terminate the website and pay $2.5 million in penalties over deceptive advertising practices that targeted student veterans.
Jack Conway, then the attorney general of Kentucky, said at the time that QuinStreet's use of GIBill.com was "the most egregious example" that he had seen of misinformation and greed directed at veterans. He said the investigation included a review of 8,000 emails to QuinStreet through the site, many of which came from veterans who believed they were communicating with VA officials. The marketing firm regularly redirected visitors to a small group of for-profit schools.
Despite the VA holding the trademark, there are concerns the domain could fall into the wrong hands again.
"It's very risky to have GIBill.com not owned by VA," said Carrie Wofford, president of Veterans Education Success. "The whole reason that law enforcement shut down GIBill.com in 2012 and forced the private owner to give the domain to VA is because it was wildly abusing and deceiving veterans. That is likely to happen again."
Veterans Education Success, through a domain broker, offered up to $5,000 to buy the domain to get it out of the wild and return it to the VA, but the anonymous owner turned it down.
GIBill.com could be used for other means, which could confuse veterans trying to find information and apply for benefits. However, the VA could potentially file a lawsuit if the domain was ever used to deceive beneficiaries again.
"The owner of the domain name cannot use the domain name in a way which would mislead the public to believe that it is owned, sponsored or affiliated with the Department of VA," said Jeffrey Kobulnick of Brutzkus Gubner, an attorney who specializes in intellectual property. "If the domain is used with a problematic website or for deceptive purposes in the future, the VA would potentially file a lawsuit for trademark infringement and cybersquatting and seek to recover the domain name again."
Veterans have long been targets of deceptive and aggressive recruiting from for-profit schools, which are required to earn at least 10% of their revenue outside of Pell Grants or federal student loans. Because of a so-called "90/10 loophole," the GI Bill technically does not count as federal money, despite the scholarship being earned on military duty and delivered by the VA.
All domain purchases have an end date. If one lapses and the owner doesn't renew ownership, there are companies that use algorithms to identify unregistered domains to acquire and sell on auction sites.
It is unclear how the VA initially lost the domain. Last year, the department blamed the Obama administration and didn't say it was trying to reacquire the site, despite evidence in Wayback suggesting the department had recently owned it.
When the VA secured the domain after the 2012 lawsuit, it used GIBill.com to redirect to the department's official website. All VA websites have ".gov" internet addresses.
Editor's Note: Military.com is a former client of QuinStreet. That relationship ended in 2019.