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Who, What, Why, and How of Diploma Mills and Fake Degrees

Simple Laws of Supply and Demand

Diploma mills are the new meat and potatoes of one of the biggest online scams. Google search for “fake degrees” and you’ll find pages and pages of search results for bogus degree sites. But where did they come from and why are they such a problem? There must be demand for a product or service to command the risk involved with the fake degree business, both on the part of criminals as well as consumers.

A college degree takes time, energy and money, right? What if you could eliminate the time and energy components? With a Bachelor’s or Master’s degree you may qualify for that promotion or be positioned to land that job you’ve always dreamed of. This kind of incentive drives many consumers to resort to diploma mills or outright purchase of fake degrees. Proof of the desire for educational empowerment, the bogus degree industry reportedly pulls in over 500 million dollars a year, and the pot is growing.

Diploma Mills

Buy into the sales pitch that your life experience and professional training is equal to a Bachelor’s, Master’s and even Ph.D. degree and you risk falling prey to one of the biggest deceptions of all time. Fraudulent universities that set up shop and pose as quality educational institutions are able to net thousands of unwitting consumers with high hopes of professional advancement. Most don’t even try to hide their deception. Websites like that of Randford University unabashedly push degrees conferred for life experience. Wannabe students are persuaded to believe they have, in fact, made up the difference in hard professional work, and surely a Randford degree is as valuable as any other college degree, and the website looks professional and well-written.

Randford University is like hundreds of other alleged degree mills operating on U.S. soil. It has adopted a name that is deceptively close to a legitimate and very reputable university--Radford University in Virginia. This look-alike naming strategy is a tried and tested tactic of low-quality institutions. But the Randford site is nothing more than a sales pitch cleverly designed to play on consumer desires and incentives.

How Do They Operate?

Most diploma mills get by as registered businesses in states where fraud laws are flimsy at best. They peddle promises of easy, low-cost life experience degrees through aggressive emails and via print advertising. Diploma mills are considered white collar crime. Unless someone dies, it’s hard to get laws written that create the kind of deterrent necessary to stop such a lucrative industry. And consumers continue to support the business. In the article, “Who Gets Phony Degrees and Diplomas,” you’ll be surprised to learn the kinds of people that have included a bogus degree on their professional resume.

Nearly a dozen states, including Oregon, North Dakota, Michigan, Maine, and New Jersey, have ratcheted up legal penalties. In contrast, though, just as many other states are fertile ground for the degree mills, thanks to lax laws in fraud and education.1 Oregon tried to make it outright illegal for individuals to use a degree from an unaccredited university as a way to professional advancement. In a bold move, alleged diploma mill Kennedy Western University took Oregon to court over the matter. The Wyoming based KWU argued persuasively that Oregon was in breach of free speech laws and had no right to limit how a degree could be used by an individual. This type of argument muddies the issue of diploma mills. Is it real and legitimate and who is qualified to measure?

KWU and Oregon finally settled out of court. KWU has recently changed its name to Warren National University and claims it has applied for accreditation. The institution remains on the Oregon Office of Degree Authorization “list of unaccredited degree suppliers.

Fake Degrees

Outside the degree mill business, fake degrees may be purchased outright from hundreds of online peddlers. The biggest difference between this business and a low-quality university or degree mill is that there is absolutely no proof of past experience, no short paper to write, just a credit card, or in some cases, cold hard cash in exchange for your bogus degree.

Marketing jargon such as low-cost and cheap; replacement degrees, novelty degrees, and replicas are common. Some sites claim to sell degrees as novelties: entertain your friends, make yourself feel good with a framed diploma on your wall. This is a smokescreen for the real business: to sell you a degree, a diploma, transcripts and even degree verification services that may be used to deceive employers and other officials.

How Easy Is It?

Within 24 hours, most bogus degree sites can have your counterfeit credentials in the postal system. Choose from high school diplomas, Bachelor’s, Master’s, Ph.D., and GEDs. Many sites will also sell you a Law and Medical degree. Types of degrees number in the hundreds. Want to be a chemical engineer?

Do fake diplomas and transcripts fool the experts?

Cheap sites that sell bogus degrees for under $100 will likely not even tease a professional eye, but other high-quality vendors charge a couple thousand dollars for “authentic” documents. Canadian officials recently arrested a band of degree counterfeiters. The bust uncovered reams of counterfeit personal identification documents including visas, passports, and university degrees. The degrees were almost exact rip-offs of the kind conferred by top-notch universities across Canada. Universities and colleges go to great lengths to keep their documents secure, but the diplomas and transcripts confiscated in this high-profile case were accurate reproductions, down to paper fiber, watermarks, and signatures.

Lawmakers and educational agencies have scratched their heads for the last decade when the topic of diploma mills and phony degrees creeps into the dialogue. The business is not done expanding and fraudsters such as those recently nabbed in Canada, possess ever more sophisticated equipment. The federal government has summarily put the job of policing diploma mills and regulating fake degrees on individual states. The truth is, no one is ready to sketch out the boundary between legitimate degrees and fraudulent degree mills, and no one has much of a handle on the commerce of outright bogus credentials.


  1. Oregon Office of Degree Authorization, “Unaccredited Colleges,” http://www.osac.state.or.us/oda/unaccredited.aspx, (May 2, 2007).

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