Resume Ruse: The use of false academic credentials in employment

As an employer, have you ever questioned whether an applicant’s educational degrees are authentic? If you discovered that a current employee had used a fake degree to obtain employment or advance his or her career with your company, what actions could you take? How would you know whether a degree was, in fact, fake?

DIPLOMA MILLS

As technology and industry advances, employers are increasingly requiring applicants and employees to possess college degrees in order to obtain employment, promotions, or higher compensation in employment. As a result, more and more individuals are using false academic credentials to get ahead. False academic credentials from fake educational institutions are obtained through diploma (or degree) mills. In exchange for a fee, diploma mills award degrees without requiring their so-called students to meet legitimate educational standards for such degrees. The ruse runs deep. Diploma mills might have websites and materials that appear to be legitimate, including course catalogs, faculty bios, and student testimonials. However, diploma mills do not have real classes, faculty, classrooms, or true academic requirements.

In addition to providing tangible diplomas, diploma mills also provide customers with fake transcripts and other falsified documents, such as a “certification” from the fake educational institution verifying the authenticity of the records.

When ordering a fake degree from a diploma mill, a customer is quoted an initial price for a diploma with his or her desired degree, which is negotiable. Customers may also be offered the opportunity to add a second degree, such as an MBA, for a negotiated two-for-one offer. It is not uncommon for the final agreed-upon price to represent less than 25 percent of the original quoted price. The reason being, the only “products” that diploma mills produce are printed papers containing false academic credentials. If a customer pays $500 for a bachelor’s degree and MBA, the diploma mill’s only costs are the paper and printing. Diplomas ordered from mills also can be made to order. For example, in addition to choosing a desired degree, customers also can pick from a list of (fake) school names and elect their desired GPA and year of graduation.

BILLION-DOLLAR INDUSTRY

Surely, fake degrees obtained from diploma mills are few and far between, right? Not so, according to retired FBI Special Agent Allen Ezell, who co-authored with Dr. John Bear the 2005 book, “Degree Mills – The Billion-Dollar Industry That Has Sold Over a Million Fake Diplomas.” Updated in 2012, “Degree Mills” cites sobering statistics regarding the prevalence of fake degrees:

  • There are more than 3,300 unrecognized universities worldwide, many of which are outright fakes, selling bachelor’s, master’s, doctorates, law and medical degrees to anyone willing to pay the price.
  • An international diploma mill run by Americans, with offices in Europe and the Middle East, has sold more than 450,000 degrees to clients worldwide who did nothing more than write a check; its revenues exceeded $450,000,000.
  • The number of earned PhD degrees in the U.S. is around 40,000 to 45,000 each year, while the number of fake PhD degrees bought each year from diploma mills exceeds 50,000; in other words, more than 50 percent of all people claiming a new PhD have a fake degree.
  • The Government Accountability Office looked for fake degrees among employees of less than 5 percent of federal agencies and found enough to suggest that more than 100,000 federal employees have at least one fake degree, many paid for by taxpayers.

MICHIGAN’S FALSE ACADEMIC CREDENTIAL ACT

Given the cheap access to fake degrees, how can employers protect themselves from this fraud? In 2005, the Michigan legislature enacted the Authentic Credentials in Education Act (ACEA, MCL 390.601) “to prohibit the issuance or manufacture of false academic credentials; and to provide remedies.”

The ACEA also prohibits the use of a false academic credential to obtain employment, obtain a promotion or higher compensation in employment, obtain admission to a qualified institution, or in connection with any loan, business, trade, profession, or occupation. It further prohibits individuals who do not have a false academic credential from claiming to have an academic credential for the same purposes.

Importantly, the ACEA also provides a significant remedy for employers who fall victim to the use of false academic credentials by applicants and employees. Employers “damaged by a violation of the ACEA may bring a civil action and may recover costs, reasonable attorney fees, and the greater of either the person’s actual damages, or $100,000.” The ACEA is notable in that proof of the violation compels an award of at least $100,000; proof of actual damages is not required.

IDENTIFYING FAKE DEGREES

Employers suspecting use of false academic credentials by an applicant or employee should review the U.S. Department of Education (www.ed.gov/accreditation) and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (www.chea.org) websites to identify whether the suspect school is recognized as an accredited post-secondary institution. Employers can further protect their companies by performing a mandatory background check, with a detailed educational component, on all candidates receiving offers of employment for positions that require a college degree.

THE COST OF FAKE DEGREES

The cost to employers who unwittingly employ individuals with false academic credentials is high. Positions requiring college degrees typically command higher salaries and benefits such as employer matching contributions to retirement accounts. An employee who uses false academic records to obtain a position that requires a college degree is unqualified and could expose the employer to lawsuits for negligent hiring, or otherwise harm the employer’s reputation in the community.

Janis Adams is an attorney at Danbrook Adams Raymond PLC in Traverse City. She specializes in employment law, represents employers in all aspects of employment-related matters, and regularly defends employers in employment litigation matters. (231) 714-0157, jadams@darlawyers.com.

 

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