Toronto Star’s forged degree investigation

$1,000 buys two copies of sealed transcripts, $3,000 gets a university degree


 

The Toronto Star reports that it recently investigated 26-year-old York University graduate Peng Sun, who they say is in the business of selling forged university degrees and transcripts. As the story notes, the fake-degree market is believed to be a billion-dollar industry “with hundreds of Internet sites pumping out an estimated 200,000 fake diplomas a year around the globe”.

A transcript of two conversations between Peng Sun and the Star’s undercover operative is posted on the paper’s website. Sun admits that he sells “3 (degrees) per week, a good week, I get 4”. His price list is below. These items are apparently available in “different combos, with gift packages”.

  • $3,000 – most university degrees (York, University of Toronto, etc.)
  • $6,000 – University of Toronto-post 2006 (with anti-counterfeit hologram)
  • $1,750 – Student photo ID card
  • $1,000 – Two copies of sealed transcripts, on watermarked paper
  • $900 – Graduation letter from Canadian university
  • $800 – Enrolment notice
  • $600 – Proof of tuition payments
  • $500 – Admission letter from university

 

Toronto Star’s forged degree investigation

  1. Thanks for the post Dale, I wouldn’t have seen it otherwise. This is yet another example as to why authorities have to take seriously bogus university, phony degrees, counterfeit degrees business. It may be a cottage industry, but it’s combined effect is tremendous.

    From my own experience in dealing with these matters in BC (Kingston College, Lansbridge University, Vancouver University, Rutherford University, University of Northern Washington, Brixton University and others) the authorities seem to think that these are just some sort of petty offenses, akin to youthful hijinx like shoplifting.

    These are Criminal Code offenses taking place. Phony or forged degrees are covered under the provisions dealing with forgery, planning to offer phony or false degrees amounts to criminal conspiracy, and sending phony or forged degrees through the mail constitutes mail fraud.

    Admittedly, it’s tough to prosecute these people, but one way to dry up their business is to follow the lead of some US states and make it a specific offense to use a false or substandard credential to obtain employment or promotion with a public sector employer.

  2. I agree with you somewhat, Robert, but the full story paints the picture in a more complicated light. In the case of this particular supplier, he was very frank that his primary clients were foreign students, mainly from China, who intended to shop their “degrees” back home. Now I don’t want to criticize China especially, and I suspect some of that is simply that this particular counterfeiter (being Chinese himself) could reach this specific community. But I’ll take it as assumed that a lot of this business, probably most of it, is for foreign students. Or I guess I should say “students.”

    So the problem there is if you try to curtail this by making the use of the fake degree the primary offense, you are still at the mercy of national borders. Maybe if China were to make it an offense and enforce criminal sanctions that would have consequence – but what chance do Canadian universities stand of influencing China’s law enforcement policy? Precious little, I’d assume.

    This is needful of attention, yes, but I’m mindful of something I learned in Criminal law class. There are practical limits to what the criminal law can accomplish. It doesn’t hurt anyone to have such a law on the books, but I think it would be foolish to imagine it actually addresses the problem.

    Universities simply have to take full responsibility for making it easy for employers to verify credentials with them. And then, employers have to take responsibility for doing so. The contract for employment is still a “purchase” of services. And we still live in a caveat emptor world. An employer who hires someone based on false credentials has many available forms of redress. An employer who doesn’t even bother to inquire into someone’s credentials – in effect to fail to even inspect “the goods” – is guilty of gross negligence.

    To my mind, that’s the only corrective measure that has any legs. I hate to say I blame the employers, but in many cases here I do. I suspect the foreign market is rife with these false credentials because it’s wild west economics out there. Controls are lacking. And that’s been proved on every front from lead-based toys to shoddy construction to tainted food to you name it. Is anyone surprised the quality of employees is sometimes falsified?

    If Canada wants to protect the value of our degrees in the foreign market, the best way we can do that is to make verification easy. Perhaps we could even centralize the service rather than relying on a hodgepodge of Registrar’s Offices around the country. But at the end of the day, it’ll still be caveat emptor. All we can do is to make it reasonably easy for the buyer to, in fact, be wary.

  3. Good points Jeff. I’m madly busy with a paper due tomorrow so I can only offer a brief response.

    A piece of the logic missing from my initial comment is that if the public sector prohibited the use of false and substandard credentials, and backed it up with sanctions, then government would be obliged to produce a list of known false and substandard institutions. This would then give private sector employers an “official” guide as to the bogus degrees floating around.

    In BC, the provincial government has never publicly acknowledged that University of Northern Washington and Brixton University (amongst others) are operating illegally in BC and offering bogus degrees. It took a lot of work to finally get them to investigate Rutherford University, which resulted in no sanctions for a lack of conclusive evidence (my informants who were taken in by Rutherford won’t go public because they fear what it will do to their careers).

    So, what I’m suggesting works in concert with what you are suggesting. Make it easier to find out if someone has a legitimate credential and make it clear which institutions are offering illegitimate credentials.

    If it was just a matter of employers being duped, it’s not great, but the potential damage is localized. The problem is that some of these bogus schools are setting up bogus health care professional accreditation bodies and people are being duped into thinking that their health care provider is somehow actually qualified. This isn’t for the practice of medicine, but in various types of unregulated mental health therapies and alternative medical therapies.

    Now, this is straying a bit from the forgery of credentials, but it is part of a continuum.

  4. does anyone want my admissions letter for $500?

  5. I think there’s more than a bit of logic missing from some of your posts, Robert. First of all, I’m not from BC but at least one of the institutions mentioned, Lansbridge, was shut down before any degrees were awarded. There was nothing unlawful, hence no one was charged. They simply failed to meet the requirements for a degree-granting institution in BC and appropriate action was taken.

    Your ranting about substandard degrees is reckless. Who decides what is substandard? MacLeans? CUFA? Provincial governments grant the right to institutions within their borders to grant degrees. There is no formal ranking or accrediting that can differentiate degrees in Canada.

    If you mean below average, perhaps you are speaking about the BC government’s recent move to turn colleges into universities? If you are talking about online universities reaching across borders, I would remind you that TRU/BCOpen awards degrees to residents of many jurisdictions in which they are not licensed to do so.

    I would like to cut right to the chase and accuse you of posting to support a hidden agenda. You will not define substandard, because to do so you will have to promote your stance that only organizations that are served by members of CUFA are not substandard. And that stance is getting more and more difficult to defend now that big players like Harvard, Oxford and Yale are using distance education to reach beyond their boundaries.

  6. Sounds like you both have hidden agendas. The original post was about a serious case of forgery. These documents could only be used to defraud the public. It has nothing to do with licensing or accreditation.

    This guy should go to jail. I could see him getting away with selling souvenir degrees in China, but not from Canadian soil. Universities are incorporated, what about their rights to protection in this case?

  7. I did conflate the Lansbridge issue with the phony degrees issue and that was not appropriate. I tend to lump the Kingston College / Lansbridge University issues together in my mind because at the root of both of them was the same person. But they are not the same issue.

    To be absolutely clear, Lansbridge University was not involved in phony degrees, forgery or any of the type of activity which was the subject of the news posting. Lansbridge was shut down in BC before they awarded any degrees because they were in contravention of a Ministerial consent order. Lansbridge University continues to operate completely legally in New Brunswick.

    The phrase “substandard degrees” is taken from US jurisdictions (I believe it was Texas where I first saw the term used) to describe institutions that might be granting degrees legally in some jurisdiction, somewhere in the world, but for all intents and purposes are degree mills, or darn close. There are a few countries (and some US states) that are used as “flags of convenience” for this type of thing.(Looky there, I defined “substandard”).

    My comments have nothing to do with any perceived differences in quality amongst institutions authorized to grant non-theological degrees in Canada (I note this caveat because the granting of theological degrees in many, if not all, provinces is not regulated — as is the case in BC). As far as I am aware, the processes in place in each province weed out any one who would offer worthless degree programs (this is certainly the case in BC). After an institution has gained such approval it’s basically up to students to determine if any given degree program meets their needs (i.e. market forces).

    Neither I, nor the organization I represent, has any problem with well-designed and well-executed distance education programs. One of our member associations represents faculty at Royal Roads University, which uses mixed model delivery and I know how hard they work to provide their students with a high-quality education. For that matter, all of our member universities use distance learning to a greater or lesser extent. Since I also know a number of people at TRU/Open Learning and Athabasca University, I can also attest to the hard work those people put into teaching and supporting their students. What we’re against is bogus institutions claiming to offer distance degrees under “flags of convenience.” We’re also against provincial governments not providing sufficient funding for distance education programs at public institutions because they have it in their minds that distance education should be cheap to deliver. In my experience, distance education done properly costs as much as delivering education face-to-face.

    CUFA BC’s agenda is not hidden in this area, we’ve been completely open about it.

    1. We want all institutions and individuals granting “degrees” in Canada who are not authorized to do so by a provincial government or the federal government (although I think that only applies to military universities) to be shut down and prosecuted to the full extent of the law.

    2. We want all levels of government to take proactive measures to stem demand for phony and substandard degrees (see my definition above) in Canada.

    3. We want all provincial governments to set a pretty high bar in deciding whether or not to authorize degree programs in their jurisdictions.

    4. We want their to be sources of reliable information from governments as to who offers bogus degrees.

    Do we want high standards for degree programs in Canada? You betcha. We also want high standards for degree program world wide, but our job is to focus primarily on British Columbia and look at things elsewhere in Canada to extent they impact BC.

    In response to Chad, my intent in posting a comment on this thread that is only somewhat related to original story is that there is so little acknowledgment and reporting of the phony degrees issue in Canada that I like to take what opportunities are available to remind people there is a problem there that’s not going to go away unless the provincial governments step up and do something about it.

    If you had to tell someone crying at the end of the phone that they’ve been ripped off by a bogus university and that their money is gone and that the provincial government had the power to prevent this happening, but didn’t, then you might get a little passionate about it too.

  8. Doh! Sorry for the typos in that last post.

  9. Thanks to Robert for his detailed reply. I apologize for my over-reaction.

    My stance is that Canada has first-rate faculty and a first-rate system. The problem is that we cannot rest there. We must be prepared to engage in continuous improvement. Compete or be obsolete. Faculty unions have been engaging in discrediting rhetoric without investigation. This is clearly an unsustainable strategy and a counter-intellectual practice.

    How about an objective, arms-length National accrediting body that can speak to Canadian standards, instead of leaving it to faculty unions who are obviously biased? How about allowing foreign institutions to apply for accreditation? And just to get back on topic, how about a national database of Canadian credentials where external users can go to validate academic claims?

  10. I’d be more than happy for some governmental or quasi-government agency to take all of this stuff over and do it properly. Frankly, I’m sick of trying to track down the degree scams and frauds operating in BC.

    While I may get some satisfaction from time to time when I can dig up enough info that the BC government has no choice but to act, mainly what I get is abuse, attempted intimidation, defamed and threatened with legal action.

    So why do I, and the organization I represent do it? Because BC’s educational reputation is being unjustly tarnished by scammers and fraudsters and the BC government (both the current and the former) is doing little about it.

    We’re also doing it because there is not a well-developed sense amongst students (consumers) that degree-level education is far more marketized today in Canada than it has ever been before. Consequently, their best choice may not be to go to the public university down the road, or the private one advertising you can get your degree in two or three years. Students have to become more sophisticated in how they approach their decisions and it would certainly help if government and the institutions themselves were more forthcoming with information about who is truly bogus.

  11. The irony of this fake degree and transcript business is that it is actually being fueled by lax employers who simply take comfort with the copies of either or both of the degree and transcript. If they aren’t going to verify them, it would be better not to ask for copies as this is creating demand for these forgers services.

    Secondly, many of these same HR professionals will tell you that their screening is looking for key terms, etc so job applicants give them what they ask for in many cases.

    Our survey in Hong Kong two years ago showed numbers that are not dissimilar to what we would find in North America with some 62% of university grads admitting to resume exaggeration or inflation as some employers now call it. Of this 33% admitted to doing this exaggeration “a great amount.” When we asked why they said it was the only way to get the job interview. When pressed as to what will happen there, they say that their interview skills enabled them to convince employers they were as good as they looked on paper. They tell us that those who have successfully gone before them into the working world have provided this advice.

    However, pre-employment screening firms like ours will find that referees will quickly dispute resume claims. Most of our clients admit that they are far more open with comments when it is third party pre-employment screening agency calling than if the employer calls directly.

    Just before receiving the Toronto Star article from a Hong Kong client who was transferred back to Toronto, we had a York University degree to check. When the university said no records, we scanned it and later phoned to the Registrar’s Office as the copy looked so good we felt it it had to be an error. The person in the Registrar’s Office told our Client Services Director, that the scanned copy looked pretty good but she had been with York for quite a few years and that the Chancellor on the degree didn’t take office until one year after the degree was alleged to be granted! We no longer bother with follow ups as we now realize the sources and quality of the forgeries are pretty good.

    Unless the job candidate is asked to fill out a consent and authorization form that a third party pre-employment screening company like ours then uses to check and verify degrees and transcripts, the job applicant knows that there is little likelihood of being caught.

    Our clients check references, resumes and all degrees and certifications and when they get a fake one, they simply don’t hire that person or they terminate them for cause if they are existing staff. We routinely are asked to verify degrees or check out these sub-standard degree claims when companies who have just started checking new hires find a fake degree in their new applicants.

    In Hong Kong where we work from we get fake degrees from universities in North America, Australia and China as applicants know that many companies will not check.

    The further irony is that major employers do pre-employment checks leaving only the firms who have less resources to absorb financial losses from fraud to hire the bad ones as they don’t want to spend the money or time doing rigorous checks up front.