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Degree duplicity

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

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Operators of www.DiplomasFor, reached via e-mail, declined to be interviewed for this story. Two other sites - and www.BackAlleyPress. com - did not respond to e-mail requests for comment.

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Though websites place responsibility on purchasers, that has not slowed the growth of fakes. Fake transcripts attached to foreign-student applications for graduate school are on the increase, especially those coming from China and Nigeria.

The University of California at Los Angeles said last fall that it would give special attention to all overseas applications to its life-sciences and biomedical disciplines, after it caught several fake transcripts submitted by Chinese students.

As fakery grows, it strikes at the very heart of higher education, compromising its credibility as a supplier of qualified personnel to business and government.

"People ask, 'Why doesn't government close these diploma mills and websites down?' " says Alan Contreras, who runs the office of degree authorization for Oregon. "We can't even find them. We don't have the resources. Only one thing can prevent fraudulent degrees from becoming a really major problem, and that's making it illegal to use these documents to get a job."

Oregon, New Jersey, and North Dakota have adopted tough laws that include fines and jail time for using fake degrees to gain employment. Illinois, Nevada, and South Carolina are weighing legislation, he says.

More states are responding after discoveries of fire chiefs, police officers, civil engineers, teachers, and others with fake credentials, Mr. Contreras says. In May, the president of Toccoa Falls College in Toccoa, Ga., resigned after the student newspaper revealed he didn't have the master's degree he claimed.

Then there's the case of Susan Collins, who obtained both a bachelor's and a master's degree from after plunking down $1,515.

Within days, Ms. Collins's new bachelor of science degree in biology and master's in medical technology - and transcripts printed on security paper - were in the mail. The package deal even included "verification" for any prospective employers: Anyone who called would be told she did indeed have a degree from Lexington University.

But Lexington U. was an unaccredited "diploma mill," part of the Degrees-R-Us website run by a disbarred attorney from his Las Vegas home, according to the US General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress. In fact, a GAO investigator ordered those bogus degrees in the name of Sen. Susan Collins (R) of Maine, who had commissioned the agency to investigate the ease of purchasing such degrees.

The GAO also tried to gauge how such degrees are used. Sifting a government-sponsored Internet résumé site, it got clues: More than 1,200 résumés listed bogus credentials from 14 diploma mills. Among the people submitting those résumés, nearly 200 "held a position of trust and responsibility," according to the report released in January.

"These were pretty high-level people, in law enforcement, medicine, education," says Robyn Stewart, a GAO investigator. "Some of them were engineers - or at least they claimed to be."

Dangers of fake degrees

Bear, too, sees peril in the proliferation of bogus degrees. He also searched a well-known database and found 5,000 résumés that touted degrees from diploma mills, including "safety engineers at nuclear power plants," he says.

"This poses a basic problem for business and society," he says. "If you employ somebody who bought a degree, you really have to wonder about the quality of their work and what it says about their ethics."

For universities, though, the problem has grown along with new homeland security requirements to track foreign students since 9/11. That added duty, combined with budget cuts, is stretching admission staffs so thin that many colleges now are turning to outside experts: academic-credential supersleuths.

Credential evaluators like Eva-Angela Adan are trained to detect everything from crude transcript frauds to sophisticated documents pumped out of specialty printing houses. They have to be up to speed technologically.

The website, for instance, states that its novelty transcripts are printed on high-quality safety paper, "the same kind of security paper that is used by many schools and universities."

"The reason that schools use this paper is so that employers or officials can identify forgeries when it is tampered with," the website explains. "Now that we print on the same kind of paper, no one will notice."