Diploma mills are churning out tens of thousands of “graduates” each year. Their “alumni” armed with authentic looking Bachelors, Masters and Doctorates degrees worth no more than the paper they’re printed on. Regardless, their implicit value is tested when presented to employers looking for qualified applicants possessing those actual academic credentials. These unscrupulous individuals end up at your job fairs, in your interviews and often competing for your job. The following information, along with a diligent applicant screening program, is an employer’s best defense against modern day diploma mills.

What’s the difference between Diploma ”A” and Diploma “B”?

At face value each diploma represents the completion of an MBA program from an arguably prestigious school. Each degree signifies two years hard earned post graduate credits and a huge personal investment of time and money to furthering one’s education. Each one defines the character of the person as someone striving to exceed the status quo and take their career to the next level. Beyond face value, “A” is everything mentioned above while “B” is simply a lie.

Why would someone purchase a fraudulent degree?

The long standing temptation lies in substantial financial gain and social status for those who don’t get caught. Add to that the desperation of job seekers to get an edge on the competition during a recession, and you have a significant percentage of applicants willing to step outside their ethical bounds.

How difficult is it to obtain fraudulent diploma?

Not difficult at all. Anyone with access to the Internet can find several options to order fraudulent credentials in a matter of minutes and have them shipped straight to their door. These websites will often market them as novelty items or replacements for lost documents. A few though, take the openly crooked approach and market “fake academic credentials” to “enrich your life”. A diploma for the academic achievement of your choice, full transcripts and even class rings are available to those willing to pay between $50 and $5,000.

Do people get away with it?

Yes, and in just about every industry. A small fraction of documented cases in which professional careers were gained through false academic credentials include; pediatricians, sex-abuse counselors, college vice presidents, child psychologists, athletic coaches, engineers, chemists and accountants. Even the United States Government is not immune to fraudulent academic credentials. A 2004 investigation by the Federal Government Accountability Office reported that 463 federal employees had degrees from diploma mills or unaccredited schools, including 28 senior-level employees.

Is it illegal to use false academic credentials?
A number of variables can make the difference between “ethically misguided” and a criminal offense. Unlike most countries with top tier universities, there’s no federal law in the United States that specifically prevents the purchase or sale of faux diplomas. Nor is there a federal law that makes it a crime to claim an unearned educational achievement on your resume. Furthermore, the U.S. Department of Education simply lacks the authority to prevent deceptive businesses from using the term “university” or claiming their own (meaningless) accreditation. The FBI and FTC have made efforts to crack down on diploma mills, sighting consumer protections acts, tax evasion and deceptive practices, but the efforts are sporadic at best. Several states have taken it upon themselves to outlaw the practice within their jurisdictions. To date, 15 states have enacted legislation to make the sale or use of fake academic credentials illegal within their jurisdictions. These states include: Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Maine, Michigan, Mississippi, Nevada, New Jersey, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, Texas, Washington, Virginia and Wyoming.

The following (real) scenarios demonstrate legal recourse that has resulted from employment gained using false academic credentials. In these cases, after the damage was done.
Scenario 1: An individual fraudulently claims to possess an MBA from an elite New York university and successfully obtains a position at a fast growing investment firm. His lack of education was discovered only after clients amassed losses in the millions due to bad investments and misappropriations of funds. The Securities and Exchange commission is seeking a permanent injunction against the employer while the U.S. Attorney’s office has filed criminal charges on the individual for misconduct.

Scenario 2: A fraudulent doctorate degree leads to a position as a pediatrician at a specialty clinic. An 8 year old girl’s mom is advised to stop using insulin for her daughter’s treatment of diabetes as the “doctor” feels it’s not necessary with his new dietary recommendations. The girl’s mom follows the doctor’s advice and the girl dies within days. The false credentials were discovered and the “doctor” was charged and convicted on felony counts of manslaughter and practicing medicine without a license.

What’s the difference between a “Novelty Diploma Store” and true “Diploma Mill”?

A diploma mill can also be a novelty diploma store, but technically not the reverse (regardless of the stores name). This is because a novelty diploma store sells academic “novelty” credentials from your choice of existing universities. You can buy a law degree from Harvard or an MBA from Wake Forest, etc. They can look extremely authentic and be accompanied with transcripts, leather bindings, class rings, etc. However, an education verification that is done properly will prove and document that the institution has no records to match the novelty diploma. The employment screening company will then work with the schools records department to verify if the credentials are in fact counterfeit. Modern day “Diploma Mills” take fake credentials to the next level. Diploma mills may offer novelty credentials to existing schools, but they also have an assortment of their own “educational institutions”. Some require only cash to obtain a degree of choice, while others make a feign attempt at legitimacy by requiring a short exam (everyone passes), essays on life experiences or even text book purchases. These small steps, along with your payment, will grant you a degree in a matter of days. A diploma mill’s pricier packages (which can put you out several thousand dollars) will include some or all of the following information, usually based on a nonexistent foreign university…

  • Diploma and Full Transcripts
  • Active website with information about the institution.
  • Active email address: to respond to emailed verification inquiries
  • Fax number: to respond to faxed verification inquiries
  • Toll free number to call center: to respond to live verification inquiries
  • Mailing Address: to respond to mailed inquiries and “exist” on map searches.
How can diploma mills afford all this?

There’s actually very little costs in supporting a few websites, phone numbers and email addresses. Furthermore, the U.S. government estimates that top selling diploma mills are taking in at least 50 million dollars of annual revenue each.

How can anyone prove a university is not legitimate if all this information exists on the institution?
A skilled pre-employment screening agency has the tools and experience to judge the authenticity of academic institutions. Our tools include databases of known diploma mills, databases of illegitimate accreditations, databases of toll free numbers for known call centers, property records and much more. This doesn’t mean a human resources professional, hiring manager, or small business owner can’t take steps to prevent these frauds from even getting to the applicant screening process. Here are a few red flags to watch for and steps you can take that may necessitate further research you can watch for in the preliminary stage of sifting through candidates resumes.

The name of the educational institution.

  • Is the name very similar to a well known university, but not exact?
  • Does the name and location imply a satellite campus of a popular college, but it doesn’t specify the relationship?

Contact Information

  • Does the applicant list a contact number for the records office right on the resume or application form? As much as we love it when applicants provide thorough information on their past employers and education, the fact is people rarely take the time and effort to look up the records department of their alma mater for a job application. When an applicant has listed a diploma mill, they will usually provide the contact information (which goes to the diploma mill call center) to prevent the screening company from conducting further research.
  • Is the contact number toll free? Rarely will a university have a toll free number to their records department unless it’s to a third party, such as “Student Clearinghouse”, which is contracted by the school.

The location of the university in relation to the applicant.
Sure, some people go abroad to study, but it’s far less common for U.S. residences to obtain a degree overseas than it is for non-U.S. residents to come to the States for their studies. The United Kingdom is a haven for fictional universities because there is a high regard for the university level educational system in the UK, and it’s typically deemed more acceptable to employers in the United States if they haven’t heard of a specific foreign university.

Go to the website.
While diploma mills may have this aspect covered with all the bells and whistles listed above, there’s typically no depth to the “straw website”. Observe the content and click on the links.

  • Are there local contact numbers and specific email addresses for most departments, as opposed to the same 800 number and general email address listed multiple times?
  • Is the content flat,or is it dynamic and changing? Universities always have events, registration calendars, job fairs, alumni gatherings, etc.
  • Click the links. Are there active links for sports teams, clubs, student committees, faculty contacts, and alumni resources?
  • Observe the language used on the website to describe courses, schooling and their mission statement. Some diploma mills try to avoid law enforcement interference by never claiming (in publicly available information) that they are a conventional university. They leave out specifics of what they offer to students and who they are accredited through. When descriptions seem fuzzy or they emphasize life experience over curriculum, red flags should be popping up in your head.

Once viewed as a victimless crime or simple esteem booster, fraudulent academic credentials have become a dangerous and common fraud. This deceptive practice not only cheats deserving applicants that invested years into earning a quality education, it puts the reputations of good businesses and the safety of individuals at risk. Your best defense is a proactive approach. An applicant screening program should always include verification of education achieved. (the highest level achieved at a minimum) A reputable screening company will “sniff” out the diploma mills through diligent research and expertise, protecting your business from irrefutable harm that can quickly be inflicted by fraudulent “professionals”.

If you have questions or comments on diploma mills, background screening services, or any statistics presented in this article, please contact…

Brad Jones