A stress-free PhD? A snip at $250

Stephen Phillips investigates the elusive world of bogus internet degrees and finds customers in high places

To judge by the picture on its homepage, Robertstown University was grand, palatial even. That’s probably because it was - the picture, at least. In fact, prospective students were looking at a photograph of Blenheim Palace, the Oxfordshire mansion in which Churchill was born. The real Robertstown, along with its affiliates Saint Regis University and James Monroe University, was run from the backwoods of Washington State.

According to prosecutors, the university formed part of an elaborate online scam masterminded by a former estate agent called Dixie.

Dixie Ellen Randock, her husband, Steven Karl Randock Sr, and six alleged accomplices were indicted last month after a US Secret Service sting. Experts say the group was one of the biggest fish in the booming $1 billion (£584 million) a year phoney degree and diploma-granting racket.

The bogus academies were shut down in August. But over six years they allegedly provided at least 10,000 fake high-school certificates, bachelors degrees, masters and PhDs to punters, raking in more than $1 million. It is also alleged, though his lawyer denies it, that Steven Randock dug up a further $200,000 stashed in the Randocks’s back garden after their home was searched.

The fraud and money-laundering charges against the operators of Robertstown, Saint Regis and James Monroe are thought to form the basis of the first case brought by the US Government against web-based “diploma mills”. The case, which is not likely to come to court until next year, is expected to offer a rare glimpse of the elusive fly-by-night operations that are increasingly becoming a nuisance to legitimate institutions and employers.

Several prominent figures have recently been outed as having bought qualifications. They include Chelsea football star-turned-Liberian presidential candidate George Weah, whose curriculum vitae lists a BA from fictitious Parkwood University.

Barry McSweeney, former Chief Science Adviser to the Irish Government, was also recently at the centre of a diploma mill row. He was demoted in early November after revelations that his doctorate came from US-based Pacific Western University, which was identified as a diploma mill in a September 2004 congressional report (International news, November 18). McSweeney says that PWU was a different organisation when he dealt with it. Last year, it emerged that a senior official in the Homeland Security Department had bought her entire higher education, including a PhD, over the web.

Experts say it is not just a case of a few rogues profiting from people’s desire for letters after their name. For instance, the proliferation of “offshore” medical schools raises the spectre of customers of fraudulent online colleges being able to bluff their way into positions carrying life-or-death responsibility.

The indictment against the defendants in Washington State lists an academic shopping mall of e-institutions, set up to peddle “fraudulent academic products”, starting with a fictitious school offering “high-school diplomas”, from which “graduates” are referred to the operation’s stable of universities.

Fees ranged from $399 to $2,454, but the accused would allegedly offer customers a discount if they recommended additional clients. One patron received a cut-price $250 PhD for “referring a bunch of people”, the document states.

According to the indictment, business was drummed up through spam e-mail and an advert in USA Today . Candidates were allegedly “evaluated” by a supposed PhD holder, who had failed to complete her formal schooling. The only pretence of academic assessment was a 125-question online test, which was sampled by a Secret Service agent posing as a customer who identified himself as a “high-school dropout”. The agent is said to have deliberately answered three quarters of the questions incorrectly, but he received a school-leaving certificate and associate degree after paying a “graduation fee”. He was then directed to purchase a BA and told that he came “in the top percentage of applicants”. Another agent, presenting himself as “a retired Syrian military officer”, approached the operators for qualifications to help him apply for a US visa. They are said to have sold him degrees in environmental engineering and chemistry.

The operation allegedly claimed accreditation from the Ministry of Education of the African state of Liberia, where the campuses were supposedly located. It allegedly set up a sham website, liberianembassy.com

“to pose as the… official government website of the Liberian Embassy”. In fact, the operation was mainly run from homes and businesses in the suburbs of Spokane, Washington, and Post Falls, Idaho, the indictment says.

In 2003, the operation allegedly made efforts to establish a nominal presence in Liberia. E-mail transcripts of Dixie Randock’s instructions to a US operative there suggest a hard-nosed businesswoman with little time for sentiment: “I’d like to have a physical location for all three (universities) but with slightly different addresses. We need three phone numbers for them and someone to answer to (sic) damn phones and say we are fully accredited. I’d like to hire about 10-20 Liberian professors at $50-$100 per month each - they must be real and available by phone or e-mail. The first time they do not say the right thing, their money gets cut off permanently.”

According to the indictment, the outfit also attempted to solve its lack of US accreditation by creating its own body, the Academic Credential Assessment Corporation.

To maintain the charade, employers who called to verify customers’

qualifications were allegedly referred to staff who would vouch for the qualification. “It would be like me giving myself as a reference,” says James McDevitt, the attorney prosecuting the case for the US Department of Justice. “You’d call me up and ask about that bloke McDevitt and I’d say, ‘Oh, he’s a hell of a guy.’”

But the operators didn’t cut corners when it came to the paperwork. “They went to great lengths to make documents look official. (Certificates were) embossed and had a fancy gold seal,” comparing favourably with the real thing, McDevitt alleges.

Lawyers representing the Randocks predict that the US Government won’t be able to make the charges stick. Philip Wetzel, who represents Dixie Randock, says she will plead not guilty. “The customers knew exactly what they were buying,” he says. Wetzel describes Randock’s field as “online experiential education”, offering academic credit for life experience.

George Gollin, a physics professor at the University of Illinois, encountered the Robertstown operation two years ago. A website that Gollin ran collecting data on online degree scams drew legal threats from the bogus Liberian Embassy e-mail address. “They said they were going to sue me for defamation,” he says. University authorities were worried and Gollin had to close the website. But university officials soon “figured out” the situation, says Gollin, and they have been supportive of his subsequent attempts to track diploma-mill developments.

It is an unlikely extracurricular activity for a physicist, but he is driven by a sense of indignation. He describes “fake medical schools” as “incomprehensibly grotesque”.

Both Gollin and Alan Contreras of Oregon’s Office of Degree Authorisation have faced vicious smears from diploma-mill operatives for their work in identifying the purveyors of fake qualifications. But their efforts have helped uncover an incestuous world in which operators award one another fake degrees and spread information about legal loopholes that can be exploited. Course descriptions are often culled from the websites of bona fide institutions.

Another popular ploy is sound-alike names (Saint Regis was sued for trademark infringement last year by Regis University, a legitimate long-standing Colorado institution) or plain rip-offs - in June, Pennsylvania authorities sued the operator of the University of Berkley Online, which advertised degrees with “no studies, no exams… no attendance (and) no waiting”.

Many bogus operations share a predilection for all things British. They invent British university identities that play on upper-class stereotypes and sound prestigious to an international market, Gollin says - as the Blenheim Palace pictures used by Robertstown show. On a more practical level, a bogus degree from a non-existent British institution is harder for US employers to investigate and prosecute, he adds.

There is also a vogue for pious-sounding names. Fake campuses linked with Saint Regis include St. Lourdes University, Gollin notes, while Steven Randock allegedly went by the name “Fr. Stephen Frendock” in e-mail correspondence.

Operators link to areas or countries in which there are loose controls over their activities, including Wyoming, Alabama, certain Caribbean islands, Liberia and Senegal, Contreras says. “The biggest problem is when you have a degree supplier that is able to get official approval from a government whose officials have flexible virtue,” he says. “Then you have what looks like a legitimate (institution).”

The demand for fake degrees is fuelled by professions for which an advanced degree immediately elevates you on the pay scale. Last year, an audit of Georgia teachers found 11 who had Saint Regis degrees. Contreras says he has had to weed out shortlisted candidates for the head of the Environmental Protection Agency for Oregon and a police chief position with diploma-mill credentials.

Alan Ezell, who was chief of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s “dipscam” office from 1980 to 1991, remembers the pre-internet era of so-called mail-order universities. Back then, it was individuals churning out phoney certificates on home printing presses. “With the advent of the internet, it’s blossomed into a worldwide operation,” he says.

Contreras adds: “The web enables you to reach a large number of potential purchasers (at) no cost. It’s difficult to identify who is sending the material and easy to make a website look genuine.”

But if the internet has transformed diploma mills, it could also prove their undoing. Despite strenuous efforts to cover their tracks, it is impossible not to leave an incriminating audit trail online, Gollin says.

“Anybody who thinks they can send e-mails then just erase them (is mistaken),” McDevitt says. “The internet has created a whole new stream of evidence.”

Still, you can never underestimate the adaptability of unscrupulous vendors, says Contreras. “You’re never going to get rid of all the suppliers. They’ll go to some island where they can bribe someone. What we have to deal with are the users.”

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