The Growing Risk of Diploma Mills

Growing Risk of Diploma Mills

By Peter Lagomarsino, Managing Director, Mintz Group

Fake degrees created by diploma mills—those scam schools that exist only on a computer server somewhere—are proliferating throughout the business world, according to professional organizations involved in academic credential evaluation. That fits with Mintz Group’s observations as a background-screening company. We and our executive search firm clients need to remain alert to signs of this academic fraud.

The risks of employing someone with a sham degree grow as more candidates cross borders to get jobs, and as the software needed to make authentic-looking school documents is disseminated more widely. The creators of the fake schools, who might be based anywhere from Pakistan to Peoria, create websites showing photos of beaming students and ivy-covered campus buildings from stock photo banks. They also create other sham companies that act like college accreditation services and, of course, tell people that the school is on the level.

The good news for employers and the search consultants who assist them is that more jurisdictions are digitizing and consolidating degree checks into a single source like the US’s National Student Clearinghouse. China has done this with its CHESSIC service, as has France with Verifdiploma, Higher Education Degree Datacheck (HEDD) in the UK, and AuraData in Canada. Indian universities are working to build databases to distinguish the genuine from the fake, which is very exciting, as South Asia is one of the centers of degree fraud.

“Fly-by-night colleges on the rise” was the headline of a recent article in an Indian newspaper, the Deccan Chronicle. It identified Bangalore, home to scores of legitimate colleges, as “a hub for dubious firms offering fake degree certificates.” The growth of India’s middle class has prompted an explosion in the number of legitimate schools of higher learning. Indian criminal groups that set up chains of diploma mills are hiding within this educational turbulence, as well as the upsurge in Indian students’ use of distance learning, the newspaper said. The criminals have orchestrated “a sharp increase in fake universities and fake degrees.”

In January 2019, a group of academic credential evaluators published a report that addressed what has been called the world’s largest diploma mill, in Pakistan, which is still in business despite several government crackdowns. Though based in Pakistan, the diploma mill targets the US (and, as a result, the resumes of executives who were educated in the US). The network has set up 700 to 900 fake schools—most of them supposedly in southern California—plus a number of phony “accreditation mills” to vouch for the colleges, according to the Academic Credentials Evaluation Institute, or AECI. “Since their fake schools are touted as being ‘American,’ [the network has] created about 20-35 US-type accreditors which show the American Flag [and] US Capitol.” The Pakistani operation has been updating its sham school websites and adding the “edu” domain name to many of their web addresses.

The AECI report was written by retired FBI official Allen Ezell, who spent decades investigating degree mills and degree counterfeiters. When the offices of the Pakistani network were raided by Pakistani federal authorities in 2015, agents seized 2.2 million blank diplomas, transcripts, accreditation letterheads, and the like, plus information on “millions and millions of fake diplomas and transcripts” sold to individuals going back to 1997, Ezell said in his report. Most of the operation’s customers live in the Persian Gulf region, with the United States accounting for about 34% of its sales, Ezell wrote. About 75,000 of its diplomas and transcripts have been sold in the US. “Just think how long these fraudulent credentials will haunt the academic and business world in the future,” he added.

The growth of degree mills is not limited to India and Pakistan. In August 2019, the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers published a report on the same problem that was addressed by Ezell. The report noted that “this worldwide, multibillion-dollar industry is growing annually.” While employers verifying that candidates have their professed academic degrees is an obvious best practice, it is equally important to confirm that the school is accredited by a legitimate organization, and was accredited when the candidate received the degree. In the US, there are regional and national accrediting agencies which are overseen by the US Department of Education, and we at the Mintz Group have our own lists of diploma mills from scam degrees we caught in the past.

In November 2017, the website of a group focused on eliminating fraudulent college diplomas, the Association for International Credential Evaluation Professionals, published an essay about fake credentials. “There are several warning signs that can help you detect if a document could be fraudulent,” the group said. “Things to look out for include: too many fonts appearing on the document, several spelling errors, unusual signatures or stamps, age or biographical discrepancies, and evidence of white out/erasure. Unfortunately, advanced technology that is readily available online has made it increasingly easy for people to either obtain or produce fraudulent documents.” At the Mintz Group, we have run across a number of diplomas that gave themselves away because of a single typo.

When reviewing resumes, especially when reading dozens or hundreds per day, we encourage our clients to beware of universities with names that are very similar to the names of leading, prominent schools, or that try to create an aura of authenticity by including the name of a city, state or region. This is why it isn’t enough to ask a candidate to send you a copy of his or her diploma—you still need to confirm the degree with the school, and possibly confirm accreditation if the school is unknown to you.

The BBC reported in 2018 that the Pakistani network described above had sold fake degrees to 3,000 UK-based buyers in two years alone. They called the scale of the fraud “staggering,” while also citing a UK verification service as saying that only 20% of UK employers verified the academic degrees of candidates.

It’s best practice for search firms to verify the degrees of every finalist, or if possible, every candidate presented to a client. But the prominence of diploma mills requires firms to be even more vigilant when vetting the scores of resumes they encounter.

About Mintz Group

Mintz Group is the exclusive due diligence partner of the Association of Executive Search and Leadership Consultants. Founded in 1994, they have a team of more than 250 investigators, including former investigative reporters, federal investigators, prosecutors, anti-corruption investigators and former intelligence officers, with offices in 15 cities in North America, Latin America, Asia, Africa and Europe. Having vetted many thousands of executives for search firms and their clients over the years, they are recognized as a global thought leader on executive background checking.

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