Distance learning is big business, and many accredited universities and learning institutions offer a variety of degrees and certificate programs online. The benefits of online programs are numerous, including convenience, flexibility, cost and choice. Distance learning students do not have to be physically present in class and usually participate from the comfort of their own home. (That paints a different picture of pajama day at school.) Because communication with teachers is usually handled through chat rooms or email, it is difficult to positively identify students. This opens the door for student loan fraud using stolen personal identification information as detailed in an article in The Morning Call, where a couple used stolen identities to pocket more than $272,000 in student loan funds.
The story reports that a man and woman from East Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania collected fraudulent payments from the government through a complicated identity theft and fraud scheme by posing as students at two online universities for more than a year and a half. (They probably could have earned a degree or certificate in that amount of time.) The woman involved in the scam obtained a mailbox at a private shipping and mail facility by using the name and driver’s license of another person. The couple then contacted the universities and posed as students that had been issued student loans. The proceeds from multiple credit balance checks and debit cards with unspent balances were subsequently redirected to the mailbox and a vacant house located in Stroudsburg, PA. Court documents state that the two fraudsters used the money on personal expenses.
The man and woman, who each pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit mail fraud, will be sentenced in the fall. They are each facing a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison plus a $250,000 fine.
Many people choose online universities because they are working full-time and have to support their families. They can’t afford to lose their job, so distance learning provides a way to further their education, while continuing to put food on the table. Others need a flexible learning situation to fit their family schedule and job demands. Similarly, rural students don’t have college campuses that are convenient to attend, so online learning brings the class to them. The bottom line is distance learning allows people to grow and broaden their horizons. Those who are willing to work hard to improve themselves, but can’t afford to pay tuition, should be eligible for and receive student loans. These two fraudsters, who thrived on stealing identities to illegally obtain student loan funds, will be learning their lessons the hard way – in prison.