Angels of the North

Last year we named and shamed Robert Gordon International University which was quickly shut down and last week Newcastle International University was red flagged by the real Newcastle University as a bogus university.

The website uses real photographs of Newcastle University including one showing students wearing their Newcastle University IDs, but was entirely fabricated.

The university raised the alarm and took action when an applicant tweeted a question about the institution.

The website asks potential students to hand over credit card details on the website to pay for courses. No genuine UK university would do this and students need to question it if they are asked for payments online for courses.

Many universities have international offices and overseas campuses and increasingly offer opportunities for distance learning. This kind of copy-cat website exploits the fact that international students may not be as familiar with UK universities as domestic applicants. They steal text and images from the real institution websites in an effort to extort monies. This is completely illegal and the websites can be shut down if the alarm is raised. Contact the degree fraud team at Hedd if you have any concerns or wish to report a website.

Our top tips for students to spot bogus universities:

If it’s not featured on the official Government list of degree awarding bodies it is not a valid UK university.

If it doesn’t have a .ac.uk web address it is not a valid UK university.

If it asks you to submit credit card or passport details on the website it is not a valid UK university.

If it uses American phrases; prices in US Dollars; poor grammar or spelling it is not a valid UK university

If the contact details don’t look right e.g. premium phone numbers, PO Box mailing addresses or personal email addresses like Gmail, Hotmail or Yahoo it is not a valid UK university.

If Google Street View for the campus shows you an empty shop front, industrial park or two-bedroomed semi-detached house in Suburbia it is not a valid UK university.

A Little Help from Our Friends

We are delighted to report more success shutting down bogus providers and grateful for the vigilance of our partners in Naric and in universities in spotting these pretenders and notifying us. Both perpetrators were using Ascension Islands .ac domains to mimic our real UK academic .ac.uk domains.

Hashford London University, using pictures of the glorious Coombe Abbey and gardens in Warwickshire as its campus, was reported by one of our UK universities for using text from their website. On closer inspection the website contained references to a number of UK universities despite having no connections with them. They also claimed an association with the Higher Education Academy who have confirmed to us that no such link exists.  The owners are based in Malaysia  and out of reach of UK law. They appear to have links with other defunct learning institutions.

Ridgeshire University of London claimed to be a private elearning institution but listed campus locations in the UK and had addresses and phone numbers for the Faroe islands and Aberdeen. Colleagues in Sweden reported this to us when one of its degree certificates came to them for verification. The certificate gives details of how to verify its authenticity on the university website, which worked when we tested it – another example of a website existing to back up paper credentials.

By the way, the name on the certificate was Happy – I suspect that’s not how the individual feels now they’ve been found out.

The websites are offline and the  details have been added to the bogus provider database on hedd.ac.uk

8 providers were reported to us in January for investigation so please check back here for progress.

A Question of Trust

It’s good to see the NHS taking a strong position on application fraud right up to senior levels and prosecuting offenders.

This month sees two men who lied about their qualifications – including possessing fake degree certificates to obtain senior positions in the NHS, back in court.

Conrad de Souza had already been imprisoned for 27 months in 2011 for faking medical qualifications in order to hold clinical guidance roles and was also ordered to repay the NHS £270,000. After his release he repeatedly lied about his qualifications on applications for a number of senior positions in the NHS and was convicted of 6 counts of fraud in December. This week he has been sent back to prison for 17 months.

Dr. Jon Andrewes is a former NHS trust chairman who lied spectacularly about his qualifications to get two top NHS jobs as chairman of the Torbay NHS Care Trust and later the Royal Cornwall Hospitals Trust. According to his online biography he is Dr. Jon Andrewes with a PhD from Heriot-Watt University where he specialised in researching leadership, management and success attributes in the commercial sector. His first degree is in Philosophy, Politics and Economics and he also has an MBA with a finance specialism from the University of Bristol. All these claims are false. He pleaded guilty at Exeter Crown Court recently and will be sentenced on the 1st March. At the time of recruiting him into these senior roles the NHS checked his references, but not his degrees.

The advice here is simple. Check qualifications for everyone you hire – regardless of seniority, fine CVs and track records. Fraudsters come in all guises.

Bob’s Not Your Uncle

News of our work in dealing with bogus providers is spreading far and wide. We received a report from Iran that a UK university was selling fake diplomas for £200 via an office in Iran. At the same time Robert Gordon University reported a copycat website masquerading as them when the certificate above came through HEDD for verification. We joined up the dots.

Under our naming and shaming promise I give you International University Robert Gordon and the certificate for one of their latest ‘graduates’.

On the certificate is the name and student ID number – we have blanked it out. If you visit the website and key in the ID number you get an instant verification of the candidate’s credentials. 

robert gordon verification

Unfortunately for the applicant the employer contacted the real Robert Gordon University to verify it and the deceit was uncovered. Had they gone to the webpage above they could easily have been fooled into employing a fraudster.

Like many bogus websites the copycat uses a lot of information stolen from the real Robert Gordon University website and other pages from a genuine UK university in Yorkshire.

HEDD has acted swiftly, adding International University Robert Gordon to the bogus providers on the university look up service on HEDD and reported the site to Trading Standards, the National Crime Agency and the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau. The website http://www.inturg.com has been suspended and the owners are being investigated.

Open and Shut Case

Manchester Open University is the latest bogus university website to be reported to our fraud hotline. With both the University of Manchester and the Open University Manchester Regional Centre based in the city, this copycat site is attempting to trade on the reputations of these genuine UK HE providers.

Here are some of the clues:

  • It’s not on the list of legitimate providers.
  • No campus on Google Streetview – because it’s non-existent.
  • The web address (www.mou-ac.com)* is designed to mimic our .ac.uk domain.
  • The website is out of date – referring to 2013-14 entry and open days.
  • The spelling and grammar is poor across the site.
  • The text that is correctly spelt is lifted from a genuine UK university’s website breaching their copyright. They have been informed.
  • No Manchester phone number – just a premium rate line (shut down by us now).
  • Claims to be a ‘not-for-profit charity’ but there’s no registration number.
  • No named staff.
  • A verification service where you can enter a student number from a certificate or transcript to get confirmation – typical of bogus providers.
  • No company registration number.

We are working with the enforcement authorities to shut down the website, which we believe is based in France, but in the meantime let’s spread the word.

*If this link is no longer working then you are too late. The site has been shut down. Please don’t be disappointed.

 

McScam

It is common practice for bogus universities to use logos from professional and accreditation bodies on their websites to lend an air of authenticity, which unsuspecting applicants are unlikely to check.

Much of the time the accreditation bodies are as bogus as the universities, but occasionally the fake provider will use images from genuine bodies.

HEDD advises universities to be vigilant in monitoring their brand online to look for breaches of copyright or theft of intellectual property. The same advice goes to professional bodies.

The University of McAllister* has been reported to HEDD for using the logo of Universities UK – the professional body which represents UK universities. The site also claims to hold a Queen’s Anniversary Prize for Higher and Further Education. Universities UK and The Royal Trust have both confirmed that they have no association with this provider.

They are in breach of a number of UK laws, including the use of the word ‘University’ which is a restricted and regulated term.

On closer inspection, their address in Darlington proves to be a quiet industrial estate, not a campus, and the phone and fax numbers are disconnected. The owner of the domain has a Glasgow address.

The McAllister certificate we have obtained says the individual studied for their McAllister degree at a college in Malaysia – which is also associated with Bransfield University – another bogus institution we have exposed through HEDD.

The key to the scam lies here:

The website has a verification service. Key in the student number from the certificate and the individual’s details come up on screen, including a date of birth, passport number, qualification, classification. The unsuspecting employer believes they have followed good practice and made a real check.

mcallister verification

*At the time of writing the website is live but we are working with the enforcement authorities to shut them down. If you can’t follow the link, we have been successful. Go us!

A Lie By Any Other Name

A solicitor has been lucky not to be struck off after an employer reported her to the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA). She had claimed to hold a 2:1 in a job application, when in fact she had a 2:2, Legal Cheek reports.

Anna Goodwin  completed her law degree at the University of the West of England in 2006 and went on to qualify as a solicitor in 2011.

She believed that the 2:2 grade she had achieved was preventing her from getting permanent employment, despite getting high results in her Legal Practice Course and Professional Skills Course. When she applied to the Army Legal Services (ALS) for a position as a legal advisor, she lied about the grade.

Their strict recruitment process meant her deceit was uncovered, even before she was interviewed, when ALS requested her original certificates. At that point she confessed – justifying her lie as a means to obtain an interview, after which she had intended to come clean.

We applaud ALS for not only cancelling her interview, but for reporting the fraud to the SRA. They took action and have suspended Goodwin from practising law for 18 months and fined her £3,000. The long term damage to her career could be far more costly.

Too often employers reject candidates after lying on applications, but don’t take action to report the fraud. One of the key reasons degree fraud thrives is because the perpetrators get away with it. If individuals clearly see that fraud doesn’t pay, the temptation is reduced. Cifas maintains a database of known fraud offenders which it shares with employers, financial services and banks.  They also publish advice for students and graduates about the consequences of degree fraud.

Goodwin defended her action in an email to ALS saying ‘I would like to take this opportunity to apologise for exaggerating my marks on my CV slightly and I can only hope that you will see that my reasons for doing it were genuine’.

‘Exaggerating’? ‘Slightly’? A lie is a lie is a lie.

This might well be a case of naïveté and Goodwin’s assertion that she always intended to explain may be true, but the result is the same. Hopefully the publicity the case has attracted will demonstrate to other students and graduates that the risk is not worth it.