And I fell for it.
Back on August 12th, I got a message on LinkedIn from Sami Masood.
It made sense to me. I'm a well regarded digital marketer with almost 20 years of professional experience. I'm the owner of the best digital marketing agency in Northern Virginia. Of course a small local university like Shenandoah would want someone like me to consult with them on the curriculum of their Graduate Business Digital Marketing Certificate Courses. I was flattered to be asked.
As directed, I scheduled time to speak with Sami via Calendly. It seemed a little odd that he wanted me to self-service scheduling the call, but I pressed forward. It was surprising that Sami had such limited availability on his calendar, but I didn't make too much of it.
At the time, I didn't click through to view Sami's profile on LinkedIn. I should have. But even if I had, he certainly seems to represent himself as an employee of Shenandoah University's School of Business.
I wouldn't have noticed the "In partnership with "Z School" logo that is so small it's almost illegible. I had never heard of Zschool anyhow, so it probably wouldn't have meant anything to me.
If I had been on my guard, it probably would have occurred to me that this person doesn't look very much like any of the other people I see when searching for "Sami Masood" on Google.
If I had scrolled down to the bottom of Sami's LinkedIn profile, I would have noticed that Sami lists his current employer as "College Recruiting Partners", although there is no such company on LinkedIn and Google doesn't find any companies named "College Recruiting Partners".
I might have also noticed that Sami has been working remotely in the US for the past two months, but graduated from the University of Central Punjab, a private university in Lahore, Pakistan.
I wasn't paying attention. I was basking in the glow of flattery, so I didn't even notice that when my Zoom call finally happened that I ended up speaking with someone named Michael Keller. If I had looked up Michael before or after our innocuous conversation, perhaps I would have noticed that although he also seems to be representing himself as working for Shenandoah University, he doesn't. If you read closely, you'll see that he claims to actually work for an organization called "the Executive Education Institute". Again, I can't find such an organization using Google.
The connection quality of my Zoom call with Michael was poor, but I didn't make anything of it. He was a native English speaker. He was nice enough, but clearly made no effort to vet my candidacy. There were no qualifying questions about me, just a description of the program.
Near the conclusion of the call, I decided to make a joke with Michael. If you know me, you know this is my style of humor. I said, "I understand this position comes with a six figure salary and an honorary doctoral degree from the university." It was a laughable suggestion, obviously we were talking about an uncompensated volunteer role. But Michael didn't get the joke and stammered awkwardly. "Where did you get that information?", he asked. I let him know I was just kidding, but it curiously took a minute for him to regain his composure.
It all seemed harmless enough. On the phone, I agreed that I would be interested in moving forward with the program. Michael told me to expect a letter in the next day or so, formalizing an invitation to join the Advisory Panel for the Digital Marketing Program at Shenandoah University.
After this conversation, I proudly shared the news with my Mom and a few close friends. I have to admit, Mom seemed a bit skeptical. However friends and colleagues congratulated me on the achievement.
The next day, a formal letter arrived via Zoho Sign (a low rent version of Docusign). Here's the letter:
Like most victims of scams, I was not reading the fine print. Looking back at this signed copy of the letter, I realize I was presented with a requirement to register myself or a colleague for the class. I didn't see it. But I definitely signed it.
So, I was very surprised to receive a follow-up email describing "Next Steps". I wasn't expecting any additional steps and not looking forward to any. I let this sit in my inbox for a day or two.
In the meantime, I posted about my appointment to the Advisory Panel on Facebook. I even spent 20-30 minutes creating a custom graphic for my post:
This post had the most likes of anything I've posted in 2023. Friends, family members and former colleagues all seemed to like the idea of the aging digital marketing expert taking a step toward academia.
I think I finally read this email on Saturday...
I was finally on alert that these people were trying to sell me something. But I figured I'd ignore it and probably continue with the program anyway. Then I got another email. This time they made it clear that I wasn't going to be appointed to the Advisory Panel after all if I didn't take advantage of this great deal on a certificate program.
I finally saw that they were trying to get me (or an employee) to register for this course for $1,498.50. Now to be fair, that represents a 70% discount versus the full price at $4,995, so I should be grateful, right?
It finally hit home that my legendary expertise as a digital marketer was not finally being recognized in the halls of higher education. Rather, some poor schmuck in a boiler room telemarketing agency in Lahore, Pakistan found and targeted me on LinkedIn. I would never enjoy the honor of being an unpaid member of the Advisory Panel for the Digital Marketing Program at Shenandoah University, and I would never get my hands on whatever was inside that welcome kit! Dammit!
I fired off an angry reply-all to Michael Keller and team. I used a vulgarity that begins with the letter F in a very large typeface.
About 10 minutes later I got a terse and unfriendly email from Bernadine Dykes. Bernadine assured me the program is not a scam and informed me that Shenandoah University has partnered with Zschool for the program.
Despite having worked in higher education recruitment for a few years at Hobsons, I had never heard of Zschool. A quick Google Search answered all my questions.
Dozens of people from across the country shared their experience with the scam.
But then I got a follow-up email from Joanne Healy, the Vice President of University Relations at Zschool. Joanne pretended to be surprised by my feedback and assured me there must be some miscommunication. She shared Zschool's YouTube Channel with me, where dozens of students and advisors share their positive experience with Zschool. Most of these videos look like kidnapping victims begging their families to pay the ransom. I'm guessing that part of digital marketing class is learning to record and post a video of yourself to YouTube.
I wrote back to Joanne and laid out the entire chain of events. Again, she responded promptly with a long email promising me that I had misunderstood. I even included the Reddit thread, but she was undaunted.
Joanne let me know that she plans to meet with her team and Mike Keller tomorrow and get to the bottom of the situation. You go girl!
I will update this post with any interesting feedback from Joanne.
What's funny to me is that if Zschool hadn't insisted on trying to squeeze $1,500 out of me, I would have participated in Shenandoah University's Digital Marketing Program on a volunteer basis. I would have done a great job helping to improve the program and I would have done a lot of recruiting and promotion of the program for free.
There are many lessons to be learned here.
Shenandoah University is low rent trade school. Don't go there, even if Lafayette University was your safety school and you didn't get in.
The world is a scammy place. Be alert at all times.
Be extra alert to scams when you are being flattered.
Try to read anything that you sign for detail. I know, I know, every app, website, etc. etc. comes with 60 pages of legalese that you can't read. Try harder, read more.
If you think you might be getting scammed, do a quick Google Search. This whole thing would have come apart pretty quickly if I had done any homework at all.
In general, degree certificate programs are mostly worthless. Colleges and universities loaded children up with a lifetime of student debt over the last two decades, now they're coming after the adults.
Joanne Healy is a lying piece of shit.
The person in this picture is not Sami Masood.