Diploma mills bring schemes to the Net

Investigation: The "Harrington University" operation may be the biggest of its kind, experts say.

April 10, 2000|By Daniel de Vise | Daniel de Vise,Knight Ridder/Tribune

The ubiquitous e-mail promises to deliver a real diploma from a prestigious university without such nuisances as classes, professors and books.

No one is turned down. Confidentiality is assured and the sheepskin arrives at your door within days.

Similar ads piling up in e-mail boxes around the United States have sparked outrage, indignation and, possibly, a brisk and hugely profitable business for the folks behind a fictitious university selling bargain-basement degrees.

Experts on diploma mills say it's the biggest -- though certainly not the only -- diploma scheme to hit the Internet. "This is not some guy with a laser printer on his kitchen table. This is a big-time operation," says John Bear, an author in El Cerrito, Calif., and a former FBI diploma-mill consultant.

A customer who follows through on the pitch will get a diploma from Harrington University, a fictional school allegedly based in London. The cost, $1,400 -- minus $500 if you order immediately -- far exceeds the minimal expenses of printing and mailing the worthless degree.

The operation kicked off two years ago as University of St. Moritz, Bear says, then changed names to University of Palmers Green and finally to Harrington. He estimates that Harrington is selling nearly 500 diplomas, worth as much as $500,000, each week.

Diploma mills have prospered for decades, garnering business via ads in the back pages of newspapers and pulp magazines. But they've only recently moved to the Internet, a medium that permits immediate contact with millions of potential customers at almost no cost.

The newest ads don't mention the "school's" name, its address or the cost of the purported bachelor's, master's and doctorate degrees for sale. They arrive from temporary e-mail accounts established with companies that offer e-mail service for free. Each ad ends with one of several long-distance telephone numbers scattered across the nation.

A caller to the number hears a voice-mail message, usually from a woman with a phony-sounding British accent, promising a return phone call from a university registrar during the day, night or weekends.

or weekends.

An e-mail late last week to MSN Hotmail addresses had a telephone number with a 713 area code, which is used by central Houston.

A reporter from Wired News, the Web-based service covering Internet news, had luck with an anonymous inquiry to the diploma mill last month. "It's just between us how you got your diploma," a representative told Wired. "You never have to complete courses because we give credit for work and life experiences. You can legally call yourself Doctor."

Anyone may print and sell university diplomas with impunity, investigators say, as long as the seller makes no false claims as to what the documents are worth. A diploma mill could not, for example, claim that the document is the functional equivalent of a degree earned through study at an accredited university.

The Harrington ads, which promise "a prosperous future, money earning power and the admiration of all," have attracted the interest of law enforcers in at least one state.

"If somebody is trying to sell you a diploma, a reasonable consumer's understanding is that this would rival a diploma from a standard university. It's potentially illegal," says Jennifer Detwiler, spokeswoman for the Ohio attorney general, a leader in the effort to track Harrington down.

But, perhaps because e-mail is so anonymous, no one seems to know just where the operation is based.

Bear believes he knows how the scheme works: The scam artists retrieve diploma inquiries from the voice-mail accounts and return the calls, asking the prospective buyer to send money to a Western Union account. Bear believes the money goes to company headquarters somewhere in the Middle East, though the masterminds appear to be based within the United States.

The FBI shut down many diploma mills in the 1980s in an operation called DipScam.

More recently, the state of Louisiana in 1998 closed the fictitious Columbia State University and accused its founder, a former lounge hypnotist, of defrauding customers of $16 million. Among Columbia State's customers: Paul Richard Bell, founder of the First Florida Communications TV network in Davie, who conceded he bought his doctorate from the mill.

But prosecution today is comparatively lax, Bear says, partly because of the difficulty in tracking down the scam artists and partly because of the novelty of the crime.

"People," he said, "just don't take it seriously."

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