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Degree duplicity

Fake diplomas are easy to buy online, but colleges are becoming more wary

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 10, 2003

It's an old snake-oil sales pitch, but it's wrapped in new layers of technical sophistication and Internet marketing: the phony diploma. Cheap and real-looking, it's now backed up by a supporting cast of other ingenious fakes.

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The state of the art in academic fakery includes not only diplomas, but fake transcripts and recommendation letters, bogus "verification services," even fake accrediting organizations - all apparently designed to make the degree look real to ... whom? An employer, an admissions officer?

That's not the intended use, according to websites that sell fake diplomas. All tout their products as novelties to be used only for making friends laugh. All disclaim responsibility for the ways their handiwork is used.

A random survey of a few websites found www.Diplomas selling "replacement" diplomas - $89 for a master's degree and an additional $80 for a transcript on "security paper." (If you want a cum laude on the transcript it costs another $25.)

In China, the website charges higher prices but touts the quality of its "novelty" transcripts.

Another site, pitches quality, too, for products it states are "fake" and "not intended to be presented as legitimately earned documents."

But if someone tries to parlay these into a better job or a grad-school slot, he or she may deal with the likes of Eva-Angela Adan, dubbed by her peers "Madame Fraud" for her uncanny capacity to ferret out fakes.

A modern-day Miss Marple, Ms. Adan is one of a small army of education-credential evaluators nationwide. These professionals are increasingly being tapped by university admissions officers to spot fakes in the tsunami of applications and transcripts from overseas.

Counterfeit diplomas bearing the names of real institutions are nothing new. Neither is their cousin, the "diploma mill," a more sophisticated variant that supplies degrees in the name of an unaccredited institution. What's unclear is how many customers are truly fooled by diploma-mill pitches for degrees granted on the basis of "life experience," for example, and how many people buy such diplomas with their eyes open.

The new look of forgeries

The combination of color laser-printer technology, slick "college" websites, and a hot market for educational credentials is creating a growing problem for American higher education, employers, and government.

The Internet availability of forgeries, as well as diplomas from unaccredited universities, is beginning to reach a critical point, says John Bear, an expert on diploma mills and fake-diploma operations. The emergence of fake accrediting agencies is a recent twist.

"Not only is the scope in dollar value getting immense, but the level at which it happens is increasingly sophisticated," he says. "Ten years ago there were half a dozen fake accrediting agencies.... Now I list 160."

By Mr. Bear's count, there are more than 400 diploma mills and fake-diploma websites.

The business has doubled in the past five years to between $400 million and $500 million annually, he estimates. Transcripts, in particular, have become big business, he says, transformed by laser printers from "childish" counterfeits to slick documents with a choice of grades, courses, watermarks, microprinting, and other features.

"With the Internet, this whole scam has just blossomed," says Allen Ezell, a former FBI special agent who in the 1980s won dozens of convictions in Operation Dipscam, an investigation of diploma mills.

"In the old days, they had to take the time and expense to run ads," says Mr. Ezell. "Now they've got a nice website, everyone can see it. You can defraud more people, and you don't have any overhead." Most are still mom and pop shops, but a few are big businesses, he and others say.

Ronald Pellar, a former stage hypnotist, was indicted in April by a federal grand jury in Los Angeles on nine counts of mail fraud for allegedly operating the bogus Columbia State University. Mr. Pellar is alleged to have netted up to $10 million by charging thousands of customers $1,000 to $4,000 apiece for bogus degrees - including medical degrees.

Pellar is alleged to have fooled some of his customers, who thought their degrees had value. Many such websites include disclaimers designed to get the company off the hook legally, observers say.

"All of our diplomas look very authentic, but they are not registered with any official school or agency," states www.