Diploma mills insert degree of fraud into job market (from USA Today)

posted Jun 13, 2012, 7:05 PM by Everboleh Chow   [ updated Jun 13, 2012, 7:07 PM ]
This news article may be close to 10 years old, but it does still give lots of food for thought for HR professionals. Even the US Federal Government are affected by fake degrees and diplomas presented by existing and new employees.

Posted 9/28/2003 10:42 PM     Updated 9/29/2003 12:48 AM
Diploma mills insert degree of fraud into job market
By Stephanie Armour, USA TODAY
After Marion Kolitwenzew learned her daughter was diabetic, she took her in 1999 to a specialist for care. He seemed impressive, with an office full of medical supplies and a slew of medical degrees from universities.
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, displays degrees from Degrees-R-Us.
By Tim Dillon, USA TODAY

It turns out those diplomas came from degree mills, which are bogus universities that confer degrees for little or no study. When the mother followed his advice and took her daughter off insulin, the 8-year-old girl began vomiting and died.

The North Carolina man who treated her, Laurence Perry, is serving up to 15 months in jail for manslaughter and practicing medicine without a license. But questionable degrees aren't just being used by bogus doctors.

Employees armed with academic credentials from diploma mills have held jobs as sex-abuse counselors, college vice presidents, child psychologists, athletic coaches and engineers. While some employees simply falsify their résumés and make up degrees, others turn to diploma mills. These bogus colleges and universities make it easier to pull off the résumé charade because they provide fake diplomas and transcripts that often seem legitimate.

The use of diploma mills is exploding as the Internet makes bogus degrees easier to get than ever before. More workers are buying these degrees because they're looking for an edge in the competitive job market. And with more legitimate colleges offering online degrees, the environment is ripe for diploma mills to flourish, because it's harder to determine whether a degree earned long distance is really legitimate. In addition, many diploma mills adopt names that are similar to bona fide universities or colleges.

A federal investigation is underway to determine how many employees list diploma-mill degrees on their résumés and whether tax dollars are funding sham credentials. The investigation is only into diploma mills, not outright résumé falsification. A 2002 probe by the federal General Accounting Office found more than 1,200 résumés on a government Internet site listed degrees that actually came from diploma mills. Some states also are passing laws making it a crime punishable by jail time to use fake degrees for landing a job or raise.

Concerns about phony credentials have been mounting since June, when questions were first raised about the academic record of the Homeland Security Department's deputy chief information officer, Laura Callahan. She's on paid leave while the department investigates whether her degrees, including a Ph.D. from Hamilton University of Wyoming (which is not affiliated with Hamilton College in New York or similarly named colleges and universities), came from diploma mills.

Diploma mills thriving

There are more than 400 diploma mills and 300 counterfeit diploma Web sites, and business is thriving amid a lackluster economy — doubling in the past five years to more than $500 million annually, according to estimates kept by John Bear, author of Bears' Guide to Earning Degrees By Distance Learning. He studies degree mills and gives tips to the FBI and other federal agencies on detecting degree fraud.

Some fake schools in Europe have made as much as $50 million a year and have as many as 15,000 "graduates" a year. The number of fake accrediting organizations set up by con artists to provide diploma mills an air of legitimacy has swelled from half a dozen 10 years ago to 260 in 2003.

"(Diploma mills) used to be mom-and-pop outfits. It's now a professional criminal operation," says Allen Ezell, a retired FBI agent who investigated diploma mills in the 1980s. "It's gone high-tech and global in nature. That's something we've never had to deal with before."

Cases abound in almost every industry:

• Patients trusted Gregory Caplinger, who told them he was going to market a drug to treat AIDS and cancer. Investors trusted him, too, and gave him money for his venture. But while Caplinger claimed he had a medical degree from Metropolitan Collegiate Institute in Great Britain, an expert witness for the government testified that a medical degree from MCI could be bought for $100 with no study required, according to court documents. He said he was nominated for a Nobel Prize in medicine by a British hospital, which court documents say was merely a mail drop. The North Carolina man was convicted of six counts of wire fraud and two counts of money laundering, and was ordered to pay more than $1 million in restitution as part of his 2001 sentencing.

One couple gave him $30,000 and sought his advice about cancer treatments for family members. An actress who was HIV positive was treated at his clinic.

• And there have been some near misses. This year, the Broward County School District in Florida offered a candidate a job as the head of school construction. Then, school board members say, they learned the applicant's undergraduate degree came from a diploma mill in Africa. He resigned before he started the job.

"It was unfortunate it wasn't caught at the appropriate time," says Benjamin Williams, a school board member.

Class rings included

Almost every degree, from aviation to zoology, can be purchased. All it takes is a credit card number and computer access.

There are several types of scams:

• Many diploma mills charge a fee ranging from $50 to $5,000 for a bachelor's, master's, Ph.D. or other such degree. Often, buyers only have to provide money to get a professional-looking sheepskin and transcript they can show potential employers. Other diploma mills require buyers to complete cursory work, such as writing a short essay, before sending out the degree.

The state of Oregon keeps a list of some of the institutions whose degrees cannot legally be used in the state because they're not accredited by an agency recognized by the U.S. Department of Education or the state (www.osac.state.or.us/oda).

The list includes Columbia State University in Louisiana, which was closed by court order (not affiliated with Columbia University in New York or any other accredited colleges and universities that use the Columbia name), Hamilton University in Wyoming, Great Britain's Hartley University, Stanton University in Hawaii, Vancouver University Worldwide and University of Wexford in Great Britain.

To help maintain the smoke-and-mirrors image of legitimacy, some diploma mills have phone operators who verify graduations to employers who call. They will also send the transcripts directly to employers who request them. A few even offer class rings and laminated student ID cards, even though they have no physical buildings or campus.

Other diploma providers offer fake degrees that look like the real thing from such established universities as Harvard, Arizona State University or the University of Minnesota. Using high-tech equipment, the diplomas include watermarks, encrypting and holographs. Some also provide transcripts and toll-free numbers where employers can call and verify graduation.

Some online operations offer a degree based on "life experience." While there are universities and colleges with recognized accreditation that might grant credit based on life experience, the online scams that do typically charge hefty sums and reward entire degrees. Buyers can get degrees in criminal justice, divinity, education, psychology, nursing — even ethics.

Operators of such scams who've been convicted or charged include a disbarred lawyer, a professional stage hypnotist and professional criminals operating in such places as Romania, Israel and Africa. One scam was run out of a federal prison cell. The schemes are lucrative.

This year, Ronald Pellar, 73, was indicted on mail fraud charges. Prosecutors say he ran a diploma mill, Columbia State University, from a business office in San Clemente, Calif., that netted more than $10 million from 1996 to 1998. His trial date is set for Jan. 27.

Many buyers who pay for fake degrees want the pseudo-credentials so they can trick an employer, but others are scammed. Diploma mill operators often portray themselves as legitimate institutions and claim they're accredited. The problem: The organizations they say have accredited them are often bogus themselves. In the case of Columbia, prosecutors say students were sent promotional materials, including a university catalog with pictures of a fictitious building and were told the administration was made up of Ph.D.'s and medical doctors.

By Tim Dillon, USA TODAY
One of Sen. Susan Collins' degrees from Degrees-R-Us.

"There are people who are snookered," says Ezell, the retired FBI agent. "I may want to believe it's real and that I earned it."

That's what Stephen Corbin, 49, says happened to him. The Bakersfield, Calif., architect has an associate's degree but wanted a bachelor's.

"It was always a hole in my life," he says.

When Corbin saw an e-mail offering degrees based on life experience, he sent in about $500 and got a diploma and transcript. He didn't realize it was a sham, he says, until a couple of months later, when he saw a television program about diploma mills.

"It wasn't worth anything," says Corbin, adding that he doesn't use the bogus degree on his résumé or in his professional life. "I learned it can't be worth having if you didn't earn it. I'd like to retire and teach someday, and not having the degree would keep me from that."

Using fake degrees

Others are putting their worthless degrees to work, and many employers never realize they're being duped: Only 40% of companies regularly verify degrees earned, according to a study by the Society for Human Resource Management, and even then they might miss diploma mills.

Since so many diploma mill operators change school names, there is no complete list of all bogus schools. It's a gap job seekers and employees are taking advantage of.

"It could ultimately lead to a dangerous situation where someone is hired for a sensitive position," says Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who has been leading the federal charge to crack down on federal workers with phony degrees. "It could result in a completely unqualified person being hired."

One concern is that foreign terrorists posing as students could get visas by getting into a legitimate school based on a diploma mill undergraduate degree.

The use of such diploma mills is expected to spread as more legitimate universities and colleges turn to distance learning, which lets students take classes and earn degrees remotely.

As online learning becomes more accepted, it becomes harder to identify which institutions really require students to finish legitimate coursework and which are diploma mills.

That's why officials are fighting back. Some states, such as Oregon and New Jersey, have made it a crime to use degrees from diploma mills, and others are considering such laws. Typically, it's a misdemeanor punishable by a fine and up to a year in jail.

At the federal level, the General Accounting Office, the investigative branch of the government, is probing the use of bogus degrees by federal employees to land jobs or promotions, and their query could be done in early 2004. Last month, the Office of Personnel Management, the human resources agency of the government, held seminars on how to spot diploma mill fraud. Hundreds attended.

Some experts fear employees with counterfeit credentials could get security clearances. Others worry that a loophole now lets federal workers use tax dollars to take degree-mill courses that are inadvertently reimbursed by the government.

"It's very serious," says OPM Director Kay Coles James. "Individuals guilty of fudging academic achievements ... are a security risk."