Government

Inside the Elaborate Web Presence of the Government's Fake University

April 06, 2016

The Department of Homeland Security arrested 21 people Tuesday on charges that they had recruited thousands of students through the promise of fraudulently obtained visas. At the center of the arrests was the University of Northern New Jersey, the brainchild of federal agents who masqueraded as representatives of a for-profit university to ensnare the recruiters.

How was the costume so convincing? For one, the department had the State of New Jersey recognize the university, and had the Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges accredit it.

But also, like many colleges, the University of Northern New Jersey had a well-manicured social-media presence — dating to 2012 — as well as an extensive website.

Unnj.edu (taken down after the charges were announced, on Tuesday, though an archived version is viewable here) has all the bells and whistles of a “real” university’s website, with a mission statement, stock images, and a crest with a Latin motto — “Humanus, Scientia, Integritas” — anchoring every page.

But even more elaborate than the web page was the university’s chatty Facebook presence, led by its supposed president: a carefully crafted character named Dr. Steven Brunetti. According to his LinkedIn page, Mr. Brunetti was a Baghdad-based consultant for “US Consulting Group” — actually, a waste-management firm in New Jersey — “coordinating Iraqi, DOD, US diplomats, policy makers, and administrators,” among many other responsibilities.

On Facebook, “Dr. B” frequently posted about school spirit (UNNJ’s mascot was the “Badgers”), his students’ high GPAs (with thanks to “Prof. Turgeson” for compiling them), and in one instance — completely without context — an image of an iced Dunkin' Donuts coffee with the caption “Thanks for the coffee!!!!”

On December 22, 2015, he announced his mother's death, prompting condolences:

The Facebook feed is also littered with images of supposed students at the university. Yet the backdrop of the photos remained consistent — a gray room decorated with the university’s acronym and the logo. One curious exception was an obviously Photoshopped wedding picture.

Though most posts served as little more than bizarre window dressing for the university, some invited students to enroll or talk to fraudulent recruiters. (The institution’s website also included a form to contact the university or become a recruiter.)

The university also had a Twitter feed and a LinkedIn page, though neither was as active or popular as its Facebook account. Shortly before the Facebook account was deactivated, one user took to the visitor comments section to congratulate the government on its ruse:

Fernanda Zamudio-Suaréz is a web writer. Follow her on Twitter @FernandaZamudio, or email her at fzamudiosuarez@chronicle.com.