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An Answer to University Document Fraud

Aug 1, 2019

By Melissa Rizzi, Digitary Customer Support Manager.

When I first began my research for this article, I did an internet search and typed in, “How do you get a fake diploma?”, like many people would do.

FakeDiplomaNow.com was one of the first sites that popped out.

By Melissa Rizzi, Digitary Customer Support Manager.

When I first began my research for this article, I did an internet search and typed in, “How do you get a fake diploma?”, like many people would do.

FakeDiplomaNow.com was one of the first sites that popped out at me.

Well, it seems there’s no need to contact your dodgiest of acquaintances or to trawl through the deepest recesses of the internet to get help with a fake diploma.

No, the first page returned on my internet search promised me use of the same printing equipment ‘as used by all the major universities’, the same ’security’ paper, raised lettering and there were 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 and that these documents were 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 at the same time, I was assured that these diplomas and transcripts had passed rigorous scrutiny from ‘experts in the field’ and won’t be exposed.

At the time of writing, I’m pleased to say the site is no longer there.

There’s a business in fake degrees but the law is catching up

Fake transcripts are big business. No wonder, there’s a lot at stake for 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 the reported case of a man*, 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, he gentleman was suspended from practice for three years.1

A woman*, also from the UK, was reported to have 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 and Council Officer. In June 2015, the woman was handed a 14-month suspended prison sentence.2

More recently, there was the reported case of a 56-year-old woman*, who having dropped out of medical school in New Zealand, went on to register as a doctor with the UK’s General Medical Council (GMC) using forged credentials. She practiced for 22 years before her final piece of fakery led to a jail sentence of five years. She was convicted of falsifying an 87-year-old patient’s will as part of an attempt to inherit her £1.3m estate after they met at a dementia clinic. GMC rules that allowed her to register for a licence have since been strengthened and the records of up to 3,000 doctors who registered under those same rules came under review. 3

*Names withheld from this article

Far reaching consequences

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, a man* was jailed in the UK for five years after it was reported that he passed 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.4

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, learners 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, that help can be a little too helpful, unsolicited and sometimes not fully disclosed to the applicants.  The learner can be the victim of a bogus agent as much as the university, leaving some vulnerable and unsuspecting students submitting forged documents in support of admissions applications.11

Digitary partners with the China Higher Education Student Information and Career Centre (CHESICC), an agency of the Chinese Ministry of Education, which enables third parties to verify that Chinese learners applying for courses through its platform are legitimate and have verified academic credentials.

Additionally, for unsuspecting (or unfortunately sometimes fully aware) learners, there are the diploma mills – institutes of higher education, awarding certificates for a fee without any accreditation to do so. Sometimes these fictitious institutes will have similar names to genuine ones.

In May, 2015 the New York Times exposed a software firm operating out of Karachi, Pakistan that ran a global network of fake online universities selling sham diplomas. The company had over 2,000 employees according to the report, which included telephone sales agents working in shifts around the clock; it defrauded customers out of $140 million in worldwide online sales of false diplomas. In July 2018, the CEO was sentenced to 20 years in prison by an Islamabad court.6

According to Study International, a site that provides free help and advice to students wishing to study abroad, in their January 2019 article: How to spot a diploma mill, the problem is still rampant.7

It’s hard to put a number on the problem, but we can be fairly sure that there are students now going through the education system having used fake credentials to gain admission that remain undetected.

*Names withheld from this article

Two categories of fake degrees

There are two categories of fakery:

  1. the diploma mill, issuing diplomas from bogus online universities, and
  2. 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.

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.

How to detect a fake qualification

The signs to look out for are:

  • 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 registrar at the time of issue?
  • Is the University name outdated for the year of issue, written as say, National University of Ireland Maynooth, rather than the current; Maynooth University
  • 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? 8

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’s allowed a far higher standard of deception to come forward.

That’s why Digitary’s platform is a critical component that enables legitimate education providers another weapon in their brand protection arsenal. Digitary enables them to issue, certify and verify academic credentials easily in a secure online environment that has been trusted for almost fifteen years. Learners can use Digitary to share their certified and verified degrees, and other academic documents, in a 100% self-service environment, quickly and easily 24/7.

Overcoming credential fraud with legislation around the world

Many believe that legislation is a strong deterrent to document fraud; Yves Beaudin, Education Consultant and 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.”5

Similar laws apply in Norway, where again, fraudulent operators have not flourished.

Awareness can also 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 back in June 2015 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.9

Countries India and China have already taken steps to provide a registry of accredited institutions. China Higher Education Student Information and Career Center (CHESICC) in particular has 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 Chinese nationals make up the largest group of international students in the US. They account for roughly 30% of all foreign students; about 340,000 in July 2018.10  Additionally, International students contribute to the US economy, bringing in both tuition and creating jobs.

Indeed, with figures for international students in the US topping 1 million in 201810, 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.

Credential fraud is being tackled in many ways

There are many ways in which credential fraud is being tacked, including: online verification services, PDF digital signatures, secure exchange networks, and blockchain to name but a few.

Governments are beginning to establish repositories for people to check the validity of people’s academic claims, such as online verification services like Higher Education Degree Datacheck.  HEDD is UK Higher Education’s official service for candidate verification and university authentication (https://hedd.ac.uk/).

“It provides enquirers with the ability to verify a candidate’s academic credentials or authenticate a university or college in the UK. The remit of the service is to protect UK universities, employers and graduates from degree fraud.”

One of the more accepted ways to certify and verify digital documents is through legally valid digital signatures (with Adobe PDF) – this technology is used by Digitary and has been used for many millions of verified academic records.

As far back as 2011, the then-Registrar at Stanford University, Thomas Black, has been a visionary in advocating the use of digitally-signed transcripts at Universities.

“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”5

Digitary’s tried and tested approach is based on years of research with the education sector and uses legally valid digital signatures, enables learner control, is very easy to use by all parties involved. Digitary has been used in production environments over the past 15 years across a wide spectrum of education providers.

Secure exchange networks in the US and Canada, such as EdExchange, enable US educational institutions to send and receive verified academic credentials, using standard protocols and data formats outlined by the Postsecondary Electronic Standards Council (PESC).

Also in the US and Canada, Digitary has partnered with powered with CollegeNET and Educational Perspectives nfp, to build and run the CertiFile® service. This enables top US schools, who use CollegeNET’s online ApplyWeb system for admissions, to receive verified records of applicants’ academic achievements, regardless of where in the world they have studied. Launched in 2018, following a successful pilot with Stanford University, over 20 US Universities are now using CertiFile® to receive verified documents from over 80 countries around the world. Verified records are pushed directly into the school’s systems from applicants’ Digitary wallets, streamlining the admissions process.

There is much hype around blockchain and what it can do for digital credentialling. This is giving rise to a substantial increase in the use of blockchain technology for certifying and verifying both academic and professional achievement.

While blockchain is indeed an exciting technology for cryptocurrency transactions, it is not a solution by itself and is only one piece of an overall credentialling platform.

Andy Dowling, CEO of Digitary says that “Blockchain is an exciting technology and is understandably generating a lot of interest lately. However, the application of any technology is just as important as the technology itself. Certifying academic records on a public blockchain is a light-touch solution to digital credential management that gets the blockchain and the learner to do the heavy lifting for the issuer.

However, this approach creates both new problems and further questions: what happens if learners lose their keys or records? How are blockchain issuers identified? What data goes “on-chain” and what goes “off-chain”? How is revocation handled? How do we standardise our approach to blockchain so that we don’t end up implementing a plethora of blockchain -based credentialing solutions that don’t easily integrate with each other?”

At the end of the day, all of these technical approaches have their pros and cons. Digitary, for its part, has been researching and developing a variety of digital credentialing approaches since the early 2000’s, and we have distilled the best and simplest approaches into our Digitary platform.

Today, Digitary is a proven platform that is supported by an ecosystem of networks in Australia, Canada, China, Ireland, India, New Zealand, the UK and the USA. Our platform enables millions of learners to share their verified credentials with third parties in simple and secure digital format, and also enables employers, admissions offices, and government agencies worldwide to trust records they receive from learners. The proof is in the numbers – over 1.5 million learners have shared their academic documents with employers, schools, and government offices in over 125 countries around the world.

It would seem that technological advances that have helped the forgers so well is also here to quash them.

Time to make sure that the fake diplomas stay on Granny’s wall.

 
Melissa Rizzi is the Customer Support Manager at Digitary

References

  1. Daily Telegraph, UK 9th Oct 2013
    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/law-and-order/10366085/Walter-Mitty-lawyer-who-faked-qualifications-forced-to-quit.html
  2. BBC News 11th May 2015
    http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-surrey-32693850
  3. The Guardian, UK  18th Nov 2018
    https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2018/nov/19/thousands-of-doctors-under-scrutiny-after-fake-qualifications-case
  4. BBC News, 18th Nov 2018
    https://www.bbc.com/news/health-46258687
  5. BBC News 21st Feb 2007
    http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/england/manchester/6383307.stm
  6. NAFSA: Association of International Educators, Jan-Feb 2011
    https://www.nafsa.org/_/File/_/ie_janfeb11_fraud.pdf
  7. Reuters Sept 26th 2018
    https://www.reuters.com/article/us-pakistan-arrest/pakistan-jails-software-firm-chief-in-140-million-diploma-scam-idUSKCN1M61D9
    NY Times 17th May 2018
    https://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/18/world/asia/fake-diplomas-real-cash-pakistani-company-axact-reaps-millions-columbiana-barkley.html
  8. Study International 9th January 2019
    https://www.studyinternational.com/news/how-to-spot-an-online-diploma-mill/
  9. HEDD: the UK’s official service for verifying academic degrees and authenticating universities
    https://luminate.prospects.ac.uk/7-ways-to-spot-a-fake-degree-certificate
  10. ICEF monitor
    http://monitor.icef.com/2015/06/uk-rolls-out-new-service-to-help-fight-diploma-mills-and-degree-fraud/
  11. Qz.com 2nd Oct 2018
    https://qz.com/1410768/the-number-of-chinese-students-in-the-us-charted-and-mapped/

    https://studyinthestates.dhs.gov/sevis-by-the-numbers/july-2018
  12. Time Magazine, 26th July 2012
    http://world.time.com/2012/07/26/forged-transcripts-and-fake-essays-how-unscrupulous-agents-get-chinese-students-into-u-s-schools/