Bogus online degrees may be more widespread than you think

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So what if that dude in the cubicle next to yours decides to get a masters degree, then grabs the promotion you wanted -- but the degree turns out to be fake? A number of high-profile cases over the years demonstrate that some people in middle and senior corporate, government and non-profit management are not above using a bogus credential to get ahead.

There's Sven Otto Littorin, for instance, a Swedish government official who got caught in 2007 boasting an MBA from "Fairfax University." (The degree has since disappeared from his CV.) Or Laura Callahan, a U.S. government executive who in 2003 stepped down from her job after claiming a doctorate in computer information systems from "Hamilton University." Two things are interesting about these two cases: One, anyone doing a background check could have discovered Fairfax and Hamilton are questionable alma maters. Two, Sven happens to be Sweden's minister for employment. And before the incident cost her career, Callahan was deputy chief information officer for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Degree mills have been around a long time. Obviously they have allure. Who wouldn't want a real credential, for instance, for life experience? How many of us have earned the equivalent of a Ph.D in psychology just dealing with bosses and co-workers for a decade or two?

Of course, the Internet, that great universal communications tool and enabler for widespread international fraud, makes any online quest for a legitimate distance learning degree program fraught with confusion and risk. Searching online for the right degree, at whatever level -- online mills are popping up now even for high school diplomas -- presents consumers a rotten onion: Several layers of the process create opportunities for going astray. At stake, at worst, is your hard-earned money -- and at least, your personal information.

We'll peel back a few layers here and save a few for another day.

First, some terminology: we'll use diploma mill to describe something like this site, offering everything from an associates degree ($120) to a professorship ($210). Or this one, which has actually purchased the ad words "diploma mill" in Google. We assume clients of these sites know what they're looking for and what they're doing.

We'll use the term "degree mill" for something like Belford University, which throws a little bit of ambiguity into the mix, enough that they've apparently fooled a number of people. These kinds of places offer degrees for "life experience," and there are an array of what appear to be third-party marketers to herd you there. There may be a qualification process or other gimmick that seems to confer slightly more legitimacy.

Dozens of others fall into another category, unaccredited institutions that advertise curricula and degrees that may have some legitimacy -- but certain states, such as Oregon, have laws requiring that you inform a potential employer of any degrees you might have from them. (The state of Oregon has published an extensive list here.)

Fortunately, the bogus credential industry uses similar methods to the acai frauds and colon cleanse crowd that generate the same numbers of red flags:
  • Direct contact information, like addresses and telephone numbers, are hard to find.
  • The sites boast approval from third-party accreditors they have created themselves. Here's Oregon state's list of potentially bogus accreditors. The Council for Higher Education Accreditation has a good database here.
  • Sites obscure their domain ownership or identity. For instance, type "fake degrees" into Google and the third real search result is this site. There's a lot of great information there -- but no address, phone number, or information source, and the domain is blind-registered to a proxy service. Why create a Web site with all this useful information, then intentionally hide your identity? What's the game plan? Is this page a lead generator? (Don't surrender your contact information to a site with no privacy policy.)
We'll come back to this subject in future columns. In the meantime, check out the Web site of longtime diploma industry researcher (and, briefly, participant) John Bear.
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