If I had some large amounts of development cash lying around, I would probably try to buy the film rights to this story: the latest issue of Wired has the fascinating tale of one Illinois physics professor who helped dismantle an international fake-diploma ring. While his employers threatened to fire him, he marched forward into his obsession. These “diploma mills” are more common than you might think (or maybe not, if your diploma happens to be a fraud), and they are a billion-dollar business. From small, family-run companies in the U.S. to politicians in other countries, the network and process for fake diplomas is more massive than I ever considered. Here’s an intro from David Wolman’s gripping article:
Bogus degrees are nothing new. Black markets in fake diplomas are known to have existed as far back as 14th-century Europe. Today, so-called diploma mills based in the US sell roughly 200,000 degrees a year to customers around the globe. By some estimates, they sell as many PhDs as are awarded by legitimate American universities. (Heck, if you’re going to get a degree without doing any work, why not make it a doctorate?) Worldwide, the industry is thought to generate as much as $1 billion annually. And the buyers are everywhere — the Pentagon, NASA, fire departments, hospitals — all of them quintessential frauds using fake degrees to pad rèsumès or score pay raises. In 2003 and 2004, the Government Accountability Office surveyed just a handful of agencies and found 463 federal employees with fraudulent degrees.
The diploma operations thrive in part because of a lack of centralized oversight of higher education in the US. The Department of Education leaves the job of accreditation to a group of nongovernmental agencies, which in turn grant institutions the authority to award degrees. All other rules, as well as penalties for fraud, are up to the individual states — which are often lax about enforcement. (And no, the domain suffix .edu doesn’t guarantee authenticity.)
Fake institutions that pretend to be based abroad have an even easier time bringing in business and avoiding scrutiny. Governments generally don’t challenge the legitimacy of universities accredited overseas, which is why many bogus degree mongers create the appearance that their schools are foreign entities offering classes on the Web. And of course, the growing acceptance of online education has only provided more cover for this kind of scheme.
Modern diploma mills are also becoming increasingly industrious and sophisticated. They might send spam to a million people at a time and provide detailed transcripts and verification services. One of the latest tricks is establishing a fake accrediting agency to legitimize fake schools.
But one phony institution — a front called Saint Regis University — had something even better: the Liberian connection.