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.
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 ForLess.com 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 www.BackAlleyPress.com charges higher prices but touts the quality of its "novelty" transcripts.
Another site, www.DiplomaServices.com 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 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. Diplomaville.com.
Operators of www.DiplomasFor Less.com, reached via e-mail, declined to be interviewed for this story. Two other sites - www.DiplomaServices.com and www.BackAlleyPress. com - did not respond to e-mail requests for comment.
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 www.Degrees-R-Us.com 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."
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 www.BackAlleyPress.com 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."
Then again, maybe they will. Adan, after 24 years in the business, has seen it all, from Wite-Out used over one student's name and another typed over it to differences in type fonts, or letters floating slightly above the rest of a line of type. She's seen an MBA degree from Kabul University in Afghanistan that looked real - except the school did not offer business degrees the year the diploma was ostensibly granted.
"We used to say fake documents were probably less than 1 percent of the total applications we see," she says. "Other credential evaluators and I believe it's up to 3 percent and maybe even 5 percent" of applications.
Such percentages may sound puny, but admissions people worry about them. If a single imposter gains admission, not only can it affect a school's reputation, but the underprepared student often becomes a problem for professors, classmates, and often immigration authorities.
"If out of 1,000 applications you admit 30 bad students [whose fake credentials slipped past], it could be devastating," says Sandy Gault, associate director of international admissions at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. "It doesn't take a very hard look at them to realize that even one can create a big loss in time, quality, and money."
Homeland security is an issue, too. The federal government is relying on universities as its first line of defense in detecting fraudulent documents. When a university accepts a student, the student is issued an I-20 document that he or she presents to the US consulate to get a student visa.
Muriel Zhou works for Engineering Credential Evaluation International, a nonprofit organization that evaluates engineering credentials for universities and states.
"If we have people get into our system with forged academic credentials, they can hurt us in any way they want," she says. "We haven't caught any terrorists yet who have forged an academic document. But we definitely need to look every way to protect our country."
"Order the best fake degrees today!" That's the sales pitch from www.Diploma Services.com, which offers fake diplomas, fake transcripts, and even a "verification service" to reassure anyone suspicious enough to check up on your phony degree.
So I did. Since my days as a freshman, I have wanted to be a nuclear engineer. I might have been one, too, except cruel fate made my mind impervious to the intricacies of calculus. A college calc class I bombed put a swift end to those dreams and shot me off in a different direction.
Now, 25 years later, I'm thinking nuclear engineers make a lot more than journalists, right?
For my career change, I had at first planned to order from Diploma Services. But quite frankly, I needed an even cheaper degree.
On www.DiplomasForLess.com, I found credentials so dirt cheap even my editor was willing to sign off on the cost of my new no-fuss, no-sweat, university degree. No grueling classes or agonizing over a masters thesis for me.
I had my choice of master's-degree diplomas and an official-looking transcript in nuclear engineering from any of dozens of real schools. I liked the University of Michigan, Columbia University, and MIT - good schools all. I decided on Michigan.
The website let me pick the size of diploma and even the type of paper I wanted my transcript printed on. I chose "authentic university security paper" for no extra charge. (I took a pass on the link to the $149 verification service. I can sign up later.)
Now, for the big decision: Do I want to graduate cum laude? Why not? Just click the right box and a check mark appears.
Hold it. Graduating at the top will cost an extra $25.00. I think I'll just select a 3.24 average - pretty good, but not overreaching.
In truth, I have my doubts whether this diploma and transcript would fool some or even any of the education-credential evaluators I have interviewed. Still, I have a funny feeling that potential employers might not be as tough.
Just $159 bought me a diploma suitable for framing and a transcript, too - even though the diploma was a bachelor's, not a master's, and the transcript misspelled master's thesis as "these."
As might be expected, the University of Michigan isn't too keen on this. "We ask these sites to take us off their list - and some comply, but they just keep popping up," says Daniel Sharphorn, the university's deputy general counsel.