Apply Here for Scholarship, And Prepare to Be Smeared
The New York Times, Nov. 17, 2004
by Samuel G. Freedman
Josh Centor was loosening up for baseball practice at Brandeis University one afternoon in the spring of 2003 when an assistant coach stopped him in mid-stretch. ''Centor, I was checking you out online,'' he said. ''Apparently you're some kind of terrorist. And something about a 'federal complaint.' What's going on?''
That wasn't even the half of it. The coach had clicked onto a Web site that started by comparing Josh to John Walker Lindh, the American member of the Taliban, and charging him with theft in an imitation legal document. The site also likened Josh's family to several Mafia dynasties, implied he had had a sexual relationship with his rabbi, and claimed he ''has publicly defied the Christian Bible, used the word 'Christian' as if it were an obscenity.''
What was going on, Josh knew, was the same campaign of character assassination that had been plaguing him for years, and continues to this day. Like at least a half-dozen other young people around the country, Josh has been vilified on the Internet by an organization to which all applied for a college scholarship, an outfit called the National Academy of American Scholars.
Despite complaints by several of these victims and their parents to state and federal agencies, including the Federal Trade Commission and the United States Postal Service, the purported academy continues to solicit applicants for a fee on its Web site. It has avoided scrutiny by supplying incorrect or nonexistent addresses and disconnected or unrelated telephone numbers to public authorities in California and Nevada, the two states from which it has operated.
As several students and parents described their experiences with the "National Academy'' in recent interviews or e-mail messages, a standard kind of pattern emerged. Most had first learned of the outfit's ''Easley National Scholarship,'' offering awards as high as $10,000 solely on the basis of academic merit, from guidance counselors or financial-aid Web sites that themselves had mistakenly perceived the ''National Academy'' as a reputable organization.
Its name and presentation to the contrary, the ''National Academy'' was a for-profit company. It charged applicants fees of about $20 to $30 to be considered for the Easley scholarship. While some students recall having wondered about paying for the right to compete, the prospect of a scholarship far outweighed their wariness. At the point they were applying in the years between 1999 and 2001, none knew that the Better Business Bureau for the Los Angeles region already had rated the ''National Academy'' as having an "unsatisfactory business performance record."
So Josh Centor, very typically, rounded up recommendation letters, wrote a personal essay and submitted his grades from Hunter College High School in New York City. Others, like Adam David Chandler, currently a junior at Duke University, were required by the ''National Academy'' to submit items like Social Security number, photograph and photocopy of a driver's license.
In Josh's case, the ''National Academy'' informed him that he had made the cut to be a semifinalist, then stopped communicating, and grew hostile after his father began sending e-mail messages asking who had won. Other students received payouts, most in the range of $200 to $750, that were less than the ''National Academy'' had promised them; they were attacked after pursuing the matter. Still others, including Adam Chandler, had payments halted for picayune violations of supposed rules. All have come to regret the day they ever set eyes on the application for the ''Easley National Scholarship.''
''When I read the vicious attacks against me, I can't believe
all of this
came from something I applied to innocently,'' said Zeb Eckert, a graduate of George Washington University now working as a producer for the Japanese television network NHK. ''I'm called a turncoat, a liar, a male prostitute, someone with 'dubious integrity.'''
On its linked set of Web sites, the ''National Academy'' also has published the photograph, home address, and even Social Security number of several students, raising fears of both identity theft and physical threat. The sites also pillory university administrators who were associated with the students --including Linda J. Schutjer, the associate general counsel at George Washington; and Lori Crooks, a financial-aid officer at Duke.
Regardless of the target, the Web sites tied to the ''National Academy'' espouse anti-Semitism. One passage extols Henry Ford for ''his insightful books detailing the culture, history, influences and tactics of non-Christian/Bible-hating persons.''
So the question inevitably arises: How can the ''National Academy'' continue to operate? Law-enforcement and consumer-protection agencies cannot claim not to know. Larry Centor, Josh's father, personally has contacted the Postal Service, the Federal Trade Commission, his congressman and the attorneys general of New York, Nevada, and California. What he has to show for it is a $20 refund from the ''National Academy,'' issued under pressure from the Postal Service.
Gregory Ashe, a senior staff attorney for the Federal Trade Commission, acknowledged that the agency has five complaints on file against the ''National Academy.'' Whether or not the scholarship program crossed the line into fraud depends on the minutia of its contracts with applicants, he said. ''It falls into a gray area,'' Mr. Ashe added.
If indeed the ''National Academy'' did break the law, though, it did so in a very different style than the typical college-scholarship scam. In the usual con, a supposed expert persuades families to pay anywhere from several hundred to several thousand dollars on the promise to deliver more than that amount in scholarship money, said David Hawkins, director of public policy for the National Association for College Admissions Counseling. The last thing such a criminal wants to do is continue tormenting a victim who has already been suckered.
The ''National Academy,'' in contrast, appears to thrive on defaming its victims. And there is nothing very gray about its attacks. Except, that is, for their precise source.
The group's incorporation papers with the state of California list only one individual by namea Los Angeles lawyer, F. Andrew Afifi, who was named as the ''agent for service of process,'' meaning the person designated to accept a subpoena. In a telephone interview last week, Mr. Afifi said only that he had ' 'represented them in suits in the past.'' He refused to identify the principals of the ''National Academy,'' citing attorney-client privilege.
The Better Business Bureau's file on the ''National Academy'' lists its ' 'principal contact'' as an ''H. Borgstedt.'' There is no such person in telephone or residential records for Southern California.
''If you use a publicly available means like the Internet, and if you have an innocuous name,'' said Mr. Hawkins of the admissions counselors group, ''then 9 out of 10 times you can operate for a long time without being found out. Or even 10 out of 10.''