It’s just a paper, but it has magic words on it. Printed with either a bachelor’s or a master’s degree, it’ll open the door to the workforce. The road there is usually paved with cups of coffee and lecture notes, all-nighters and thousands of dollars in tuition.
There’s a huge number of people who saved themselves the stress, however, by simply buying a college diploma for a few hundred dollars. Just order a diploma online, and, 10 days after paying, it arrives at your house.
Faking diplomas is a lucrative business. Allen Ezell, former FBI agent and founder of the FBIs DipScam task force, estimated the global revenue generated from “degree mills” to be about $300 million in 2011. There seems to be a lot of demand. In his book on diploma mills he suspects that about half of the people claiming to have a PhD in the US have bought these titles.
There are also astounding numbers of faked degrees in the science and tech fields. Motherboard Germany’s investigation scoured career networks like LinkedIn and Xing as well as Facebook.
We found thousands of profiles listing the names of known degree mills on their résumés. A woman claiming to work in Ebay’s compliance department. A specialist in wireless technology, who according to his profile works for the US government. A supposed airplane engineer in Belgium. An Egyptian reporter who used to work for Al Jazeera. A security consultant who claims to work for Hewlett-Packard in Germany. They all “studied” at sham universities.
We even stumbled across a longtime NASA contractor whose profile on the agency's site lists two degrees from a diploma mill that is now defunct.
The majority of these profiles belong to people in the US, but we also found profiles boasting degree mill diplomas in Europe, Asia, the Arabic-speaking world, and in African countries.
A cat with a degree is amusing, but the reality is that the fake degree business has real costs
Most of the so-called degree mills are located in the United States. You can buy degrees in medicine, accounting, and engineering from institutions with names like Breyer State University and Windsor University. At first glance, the sham universities’ websites appear to be e-learning institutions that are trying to look serious and discreet. Offers for degrees range from bachelor’s all the way up to doctorate degrees.
According to investigations from the Federal Trade Commission, the requirements for receiving a degree from any university are quite minimal. The degree mills usually only requires you to pay a certain tuition and sometimes to take a multiple choice test. After you do, the diploma arrives at your doorstep without you ever having to see the inside of a classroom.
Almeda University in Idaho is a particularly shameless example of an institution trading in academic titles. There you can "convert" three years of job or life experience into credits which turn into a degree. Customers can make up their major. The journalist Henk van Ess took the test, chatted with a representative from Almeda University, and exposed this specific diploma mill. He told a representative that he wanted to convert five years working as a dishwasher in a prison cafeteria into a bachelor’s degree. No problem: for $599, that can be arranged.
Is it actually legal, buying a degree? Yes, it’s totally legal, the rep assured van Ess by chat. However, using a degree from Almeda University was officially ruled illegal by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board in Texas in 2008. Almeda University was never accredited by government agencies. (The University, which appears to have shut down, could not be reached for comment.)
Setting up a sham university in other countries isn’t always that simple. In Germany, for example, the terms "college" and "university" are regulated and institutions have to be recognized by the Ministry of Science. Bearing a fake academic degree is forbidden in Germany and can be punishable with prison time or a fine. In 2011, a 49-year old was fined $2,500 euros for having a fake doctorate.
Almeda University’s site disappeared this summer. However, you can still take a look at what was being offered using the Internet Archive's Wayback Machine:
Even though the university was taken offline, Almeda University diplomas are still in circulation worldwide. There are still 4,000 people on LinkedIn that claim to have studied at Almeda University. We found a contractor for NASA who states that he received both his bachelor's and master's degrees from Almeda. When reached by phone, the man said he was contracting for NASA before he got the degrees. He signed up with Almeda because he wanted a secondary education, but couldn't afford it. Almeda issued him two degrees after some online classes, he said. He has realized since then that the school was a diploma mill, he said (although he is now retired, so the point is moot).
An agency spokesperson said this contractor wasn’t technically a NASA employee, but could not comment on how he came to be hired as "senior field researcher" or how well contracting companies scrutinize job seekers’ degrees.
In order to expose the fraudulent systems set up by sham universities, the non-profit organization Better Business Bureau did an experiment: It registered a cat. And there you have it: a black cat with white paws got an almost perfect score on the online test and received a high school diploma for $200.
A cat with a degree is amusing, but the reality is that the fake degree business has real costs. It can take advantage of the uneducated who can't afford a legitimate education. It can hoax companies into hiring underqualified and dishonest people. And in some industries, such as medicine and pharmaceuticals, it can end in death. An 8-year-old girl suffering from diabetes died after her mother followed the advice of a supposed doctor from North Carolina. As it turned out, the doctor’s diploma, and his career, were bought.
Clinton Nguyen contributed reporting.