It may be harder than ever to attend Cornell, but — through a billion dollar industry some experts have labelled a growing “national security threat” — it may be easier than ever to pretend you did.
Phony diploma companies, known as “degree mills,” sell a dizzying variety of bogus products — fake degrees from real colleges, real degrees from fake colleges, and fake degrees from real-sounding but fake colleges, prominent among them “Stamford,” “Berkley,” and even, “Cormell” University.
Merchandise ranges from High School G.E.D.’s to P.H.D.’s and includes everything from honors degrees to transcripts to letters of recommendation. It can even be delivered overnight.
“[Fake Diplomas are] so widespread it’s hard for any of us to believe [the] numbers are actually as [high as they are] certain to be,” said Prof. George Gollin, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, physics, who has done extensive research on fake degrees.
Gollin speculated that upwards of 100,000 fake diplomas are in use — including, until recently, those of several NASA scientists, a few two-star Army Generals and 463 employees within the federal government.
What should — or can — Cornell do to protect the legitimacy of its diploma?
Retired FBI agent and co-author of Degree Mills Allen Ezell said that it was the “responsibility” of each university to “examine the Internet periodically … and take civil and legal action against [the diploma mills].”
“If I was a student [who knew] my college was doing nothing … with companies out there selling fake diplomas of my university, I would protest every day of the week,” Ezell said.
Yet Associate University Registrar Cassandra Dembosky claimed that shutting down diploma mills would not eliminate resume fraud.
“I don’t know any [employer that] asks for an official diploma … lying about the degree on a resume is [the real problem],” Dembosky said.
Dembosky added that the registrar’s office, which is responsible for printing and verifying awarded diplomas, has yet to encounter problems or receive queries about fake diplomas.
John Bear, co-author of Degree Mills and writer of several other books and articles on the subject, retorted that “a fair amount of employers want to see a diploma,” and pointed to the industry’s huge profits as evidence of the diploma’s importance.
He said that it “seems inevitable” that there are a significant number of fake Cornell diplomas in use.
But Bear emphasized a slightly different solution than Ezell, saying that the answer to the “crisis” has “got to come from public awareness.”
For this reason, he lauded the bipartisan efforts of representatives Timothy Bishop (D-N.Y.) and Michael Castle (R-Del.), who, in January, introduced legislation to “reduce and prevent the sale and use of fraudulent degrees.”
Bear felt that Bishop and Castle had “done the best they could” but that their proposed legislation does “not do much” to tangibly aid law enforcement, though he did feel it would raise awareness and eventually get employers to run more background checks.
Yet even this solution has its potholes, as many fake Universities have begun establishing fake accreditation services, fully equipped by personnel to validate diplomas.
Bear guessed it would be “almost impossible” to eradicate the fake diploma industry — which has been in existence in varying forms, according to Wired Magazine, since 14th Century Europe.
“Some countries absolutely don’t care [or can be] bribed,” Bear said, saying that even though shutting down a diploma mill is good, companies will always be able to move abroad and continue operating legally.
But Ezell stressed the importance of convicting companies acting illegally.
“If I [still] had a badge in my pocket I would order a diploma and a transcript, record a telephone call … and hit them with 10 year felonies,” Ezell said, citing “50 to 60 schools” he had “knocked over” in his time as an officer.
“Nobody has the desire to do this … because law enforcement has [prioritized] other things,” Ezell said, “… [but] this is pretty scary stuff.”
Two diploma mills, DiplomaCompany.com and the PhonyDiplomaCompany.com, declined requests for interviews. Their websites, however, do appear to attempt to cover-up the true nature of their operations.
The Diploma Company’s website says that the purpose of their product is to “replace a lost or damaged diploma or [to] … fool a friend into thinking you earned a diploma,” though a sales representative promised a Cornell Diploma that “looks and feels 100% real” and can “fool anyone.”
NoveltySchoolDegrees.com has a warning on their website that states that their “products … are for educational/entertainment use only” and that they “are not responsible for misuse of our products.”
But there’s little doubt that they are legally responsible.
“It is perfectly fine for your or me to take a magic marker and write ‘Cornell University PhD.’ on a piece of paper … as long as [it is kept] in the house,” Gollin said.
Yet, Golin added, “as soon as … a customer uses a diploma to get a job,” the company is “guilty” of “aiding and abetting the commission of fraud.”
As for individuals who falsely claim to have attended a school in order to get a job or promotion, The Council for Higher Education Accreditation’s Tim Willard said they are committing “legal fraud that can be prosecuted.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly quoted Tim Willard as saying that companies that produce false diplomas are guilty of prosecutable fraud. In fact, he said that the individuals who use those diplomas to gain employment or a promotion can be prosecuted for fraud.