FakeDiplomaNow.com, one of the first sites that popped out of an internet search when I went to research for this article. How do you get a fake diploma? Well, it seems, there’s no need to contact your dodgiest of acquaintances or to trawl through the deepest pockets of the internet. No, first page on a Google search, promising me use of the same printing equipment ‘as used by all the major universities’, the same ’security’ paper, raised lettering and even some inviting fake embossed foil seals.
Of course there was a big caveat saying not to use the diploma to get a job or for University entrance, that these documents are intended as novelty items or to present to parents with a higher grade so as to avoid embarrassment; Granny can hang it on her wall and proudly show her friends. But also assuring me that these diplomas and transcripts have passed rigorous scrutiny from ‘experts in the field’ and wont be exposed, so use away with assurance.
Fake transcripts are big business, and no wonder, there’s a lot at stake for our University applicants today. A doctored transcript from a genuine University or a completely fabricated one from a bogus college can provide a person with opportunities for a better career, better paid employment, and a better life.
Take Dennis O’Riordan, legitimately qualified as a barrister and working as a high-flying city lawyer in the UK, yet claiming Oxford and Harvard credentials that he had not achieved. Would he have got the job, the clients, without his prestigious background? Brought to light in 2013, O’Riordan was suspended from practice for three years.1
More recently, Monika Juneja, also from the UK, presented fake letters from The University of Greenwich and BPP Law School outlining her degree and law qualifications in order to gain well-paid employment in UK Council offices as a lawyer or Council Officer. In June 2015, Juneja was handed a 14-month suspended prison sentence.2
Implications of trading on a fake degree are far reaching and can go much further than a slap on the wrist for the perpetrator. In 2007, Gene Morrison was jailed in the UK for 5 years after passing himself off in front of Judges, Police and lawyers, as an expert forensic scientist and supplying testimony in court in up to 1,000 cases. All of which, now need to be re-assessed. How did he manage this? A couple of fake degrees: a BSc, a Masters, oh and a Doctorate, all in related fields, bought in the 1970s by post.
But not everyone has a striking criminal career in mind when looking for help with University applications. When English is not the native language, the application process can seem quite overwhelming. A lot is at stake. In China, for example, students and their fee-paying parents will turn to an agent for help with the process which requires any of a number of additional supporting documents; an essay, proof of spoken and written English, letter of recommendation, a prior degree certificate. Depending on the agent, the help can be quite great, unsolicited, and sometimes not fully disclosed to the applicants: the student can be the victim as much as the university.
In 2008, Newcastle University in the North of England were forced to expel around 50 foreign students (mostly Chinese) on the grounds of forged English language and degree certificates. It seemed that the students themselves had been the victims of bogus agents. As a result, the University now publishes a list of authorized agents.5
It’s hard to put a number on the problem, for sure there are students now going through the education system that remain undetected. George Gollin, University of Illinois Professor of Physics and someone who has carried out research on diploma mill frauds estimated in 2011 that around 200,000 fake degrees are sold by illegal providers each year in the US alone.
University admissions staff, though, have long been wise to prospective students seeking to gain entrance under false premise. Some have their own specially-trained staff to spot fake documents, some will prefer to outsource their document check.
There are two categories of fakery: the diploma mill – an institute awarding certificates with no accreditation to do so, (or sometimes completely fictitious Institutes with similar names to genuine ones). Secondly, there are the genuine university transcripts that have been ‘doctored’ to provide a better grade or reflection of a student’s performance. UK’s official Higher Education candidate verification service, HEDD says that many forgeries are ‘excellent’ in both their quality and attention to detail. Forget simple errors like spelling mistakes – although this in itself can be quite a common give-away – what are the signs to watch out for:
- Is the printing mis-aligned, font styles correct (US Universities tend to use only one of about four fonts), pixelated signatures
- Use of inappropriate language – American terms for UK University certificates
- Is the registrar name on the document actually the current registrar
- Is the University name outdated for the year of issue, written as say, National University of Ireland Maynooth, rather than the current; Maynooth Uiniversity
- Is the awarding body legitimate. In the UK, for instance, only degrees issued for Institutes listed in the Official Government list are valid UK degrees.
- Request a transcript along with a degree qualification and determine: do the module grades match the final grade on the degree
Sounds like a lot of work and some specialist detection skills are definitely needed here. Indeed our internet and technology age has meant that forgeries are more sophisticated, can be turned over faster, and are more accessible to an applicant. It has allowed a far higher standard of deception to come forward.
Many believe that legislation is a strong deterrent to document fraud; Yves Beaudin, Education Consultantand former National Coordinator of the Canadian Information Centre for International Credentials (CICIC) says:
“We have a good system where legislation in each province protects the words ‘university,’ ‘Bachelor’s,’ ‘Master’s’ and ‘PhD’ degrees. As soon as an institution uses such terms inappropriately, the province closes it down. We have very few diploma mills operating within Canada, compared to other countries, especially the United States.”
Similar laws apply in Norway where again, fraudulent operators have not flourished.
Awareness, also can play a key role in flushing out fraudulent Institutions. Neighbouring Sweden has on its higher education website, studera.nu, a page aimed at students outlining how to spot diploma mills and warns that they ‘exist both in Sweden and abroad’.
In the UK, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills announced in June that it has commissioned a new service to address issues concerning fake institutions, while also tackling the related area of degree fraud. The focus will be on raising awareness among students and educators alike.8
Countries India and China have already taken steps to provide a registry of accredited institutions. Chinese Higher Education Student Information and Career Center (CHESICC) in particular has recently teamed up with Digitary to offer a service that digitally signs and authenticates valid student credentials for all its students. Important news for the US as 2013 figures show that China, Korea and India make up about half of all undergraduates in the US, China alone providing over 235,000 students.6 7
Indeed with figures for international students in third level education in the US topping 886,000 in 2013/14 (an increase of 8% over the previous year9), Universities there are coming under renewed pressure when processing applications and this trend is reflected in other countries. Universities have a need for full fee-paying foreign students and a requirement for speed when sifting through the submissions. Add to this mix the involved and often costly process of verifying a document and there exists a quandary, and a fine balance.
But the answer is here. One of the fastest securest, surest ways to verify documents is online and through Digital signatures.
As far back as 2011, Stanford registrar, Thomas Black, has been advocating using transcripts that make use of digital signature technology.
“What’s different with digitally signed records is that the authentication stays with the document wherever you are… What it means for me as a Registrar is that no one touches that record. All you need to process it is Adobe reader and access to the internet”4
It’s an obvious answer to a tricky problem and indeed today, with cloud-based solutions available to us, implementation of this system is straightforward and use for students and staff alike is both fast and efficient.
It seems that technological advances that have helped the forgers so well is also here to quash them. Time to make sure that the fake diploma’s stay on Granny’s wall.
Melissa Rizzi works in Client Support at Digitary
- Daily Telegraph, UK 9th Oct 2013
- BBC News 11th May 2015
- BBC News 21st Feb 2007
- International Educator Jan-Feb 2011
- Parke Muth, 2014 is the Former Associate Dean at the University of Virginia
- Mark Ashwill, former country director of the Institute of International Education in Vietnam
- ICEF monitor
- Institute of International Education