The Department of Education has dispatched “mystery shoppers” posing as prospective students to various colleges and universities across the country — an anti-fraud initiative that came months after another agency dumped a similar plan amid criticism that it amounted to spying.
The undercover operation to root out student-aid fraud went unannounced by federal education officials, but spending records show it began last summer not long after the Department of Health and Human Services scrapped its own mystery shopper program.
Education Department officials declined to discuss the mystery shopping program, but an $18,300 task order paid out on a contract in September provides more detail about the hiring.
“The issuance of this task order will help the department identify misrepresentation and fraud … the department has instituted a mystery shopping program that will potentially expose deceptive practices and misrepresentations by higher education institutions,” the task order states.
The department awarded the contract in August to Second to None Inc. and Confero Inc. While contract records say it has a maximum value of $1 million, only a fraction of that amount has paid out with about $40,000 in task orders issued so far, according to spending records reviewed by The Washington Times. The documents don’t say which schools the mystery shoppers visited.
Mystery shopping represents a new form of oversight conducted by the Education Department, which had conducted program reviews and relied on tips from school employees and whistleblower lawsuits to uncover fraud.
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