Going Round in Circles

As another fraud case made headlines last week – I’m amazed that people are still so blasé about verifying qualifications, when you see the consequences of not checking.

It comes down to a Vicious Circle, which I’ve tried to illustrate below:

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Detected Fraud

Every survey on CV fraud comes up with the same stats – about 1/3 of candidates lie on their CVs – and qualifications are the most common lie. But if this is the case, why aren’t we reading about it every day? Why aren’t these people paraded through the streets in shame?

Answer: because the levels of detected fraud are low – only about 500-600 cases a year according to research.

Low Awareness

So, because we don’t read about it every day, there’s very low awareness that it’s happening and also low awareness of the risks to our organisations. If we hire someone who’s prepared to lie to get the job, what would they be prepared to lie about when they are in the job? What does it say about their integrity?

No Easy Way to Check

Before HEDD, all universities had individual systems and processes for providing verification – email, online, fax, letterhead, consent forms et al, with very variable (and sometimes frustratingly slow) turnaround times. Information on how to make an enquiry is often difficult to find on university websites. Try picking one at random and see if you can find it easily on their site. (The University Look-Up Service on HEDD now has this information for all UK degree-awarding bodies.)

Recruiters Rely on Certificates and CVs

With no easy way to check and low awareness of risk, recruiters trust applicants and, even where they ask to see a degree certificate, nearly all of them just take a copy and file it.

Fraudsters Know This

Forums, polls and online chatter around CV disclosure all confirm that applicants don’t think checks are made. We polled final year students last summer and 2/3 said that they thought the increase in tuition fees and pressure in the job market would make embellishing their qualifications or buying a fake certificate more tempting.

They Get Away With It

Their views are confirmed as time after time, recruiters don’t check with the awarding body, and they don’t get found out. So if they’re getting away with an inflated 2:1, why not add a Doctorate or a teaching certificate?

The fraud goes undetected, and we’re right back where we started, with businesses at risk from unqualified, dishonest staff, and genuine graduates potentially missing out.

Reversing the Circle

Only one thing needs to change to stop this from happening.

Everyone needs to check, every time.

Fraudsters will be exposed.

Levels of detected fraud will go up.

Awareness of fraud and its risks will increase.

More people will make checks.

No-one will away with it.

Fraudsters won’t try it.

Degree fraud stops.

Ta Da!

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How to spot a fake UK degree certificate

We recently discussed some tips on how to spot a fake UK university. The issue of fake degrees is a bigger concern than that of fake universities because fake degrees, typically, purport to be awarded from a legitimate institution and forgeries are often excellent in their quality and attention to detail.

What are the tell-tale signs?

In HEDD’s life we have received numerous examples of fake degree certificates. Although some have purported to be awarded from non-existent universities, such as “Chelsea University” (which has never been a degree-awarding body in the UK), the most worrying is when certificates appear to be awarded by legitimate universities.

Fake degree certificates are often of high quality and with excellent attention to detail. Upon first inspection, they are convincing enough to fool someone who doesn’t know what to look out for.

However, there are certain tell-tale signs which will give you some certainty in determining if a degree is fake.

Verification Returns Negative

The biggest tell-tale sign that a degree certificate might be fake is if you have run an enquiry with the institution on the student and this has turned up negative. Usually this is because the information supplied to the university is not enough to allow them to trace the candidate – but very occasionally the candidate is fraudulent and their certificate is a fake.  Sometimes the certificates are so convincing that agencies or employers involved in the verification process believe that the verification result is wrong rather than the certificate.

If a negative response is provided by HEDD, this is the first red flag concerning the legitimacy of the candidate and their award. Given a certificate, we will investigate all such cases and in some instances certificates have turned out to be fake!

Spelling Mistakes on the Certificate

Carefully check the spelling and grammar of a certificate: Is it all correct?

A UK University would not risk its reputation by allowing grammatical and spelling mistakes on a certificate or official transcript.

However, those who craft fake certificates clearly don’t mind. We have seen many spelling mistakes, for example “certified ture copy” (as opposed to “true copy”) or sutdent (as opposed to student).

Terminology Borrowed from Other Education Systems

You should also consider the terminology used.

In one recent certificate we reviewed, there was reference made to the “Dean’s list”. The Dean’s list is an American university concept, not a UK university concept. You would not find reference to a Dean’s List on a UK degree certificate.  In addition, instead of start date they used “Matriculation Date”. This is not common wording on a UK degree certificate. Similarly, using season names like “Winter” and “Fall” to describe semesters is American, not UK, terminology.

One final example of terminology was the use of “summa cum laude”, which translates as “with highest distinction”.

In the UK, instead of “cum laude”, we would normally use “Honours degree”, or “with Honours”.

Certificate Language

Historically, some UK universities have awarded certificates which are written entirely in Latin.

Contemporary certificates, especially those awarded in the last 10 years, are very unlikely to be written in Latin. The practice of UK universities awarding certificates in Latin is no longer current practice.

Although up until recently, some UK universities have offered Latinised degrees as a memento of study, they are not considered a valid degree without the corresponding English degree certificate. Only the originally-awarded certificate is acceptable.

If you do receive a degree certificate which is entirely in Latin and purports to be from a UK university, consider carefully when the degree was awarded. If it claims to be a recent award (within the last 10 years) then it is likely to be either not authentic or a memento of study.

Who’s the Registrar?

On many occasions, a fake Registrar is provided.

A simple check is to enquire who the Registrar was when the degree was awarded. If the name on the certificate does not match the Registrar at the time, then you can tell you’ve got a fake!

University Name

In a recent case we handled, an enquiry returned “Not Verified”. The client, as per our normal procedure, sent us the candidate’s award certificate.

The certificate was purported to be offered by “Manchester University”.

However, this is not the correct university title. The correct university title is the “University of Manchester”. The university title was incorrect and this was a dead give-away that the certificate was not awarded from the University of Manchester, nor is it a valid UK degree.

Always check that the university’s name appearing on the certificate matches what the official university refers to itself as.

Conclusion

There are a few broad messages here that you should take away:

  1. There are some convincing fake universities and certificates. Always check that the candidate is legitimate!
  2. Always put things in context – Is the wording that which a UK university would use?
  3. Are there any spelling mistakes? These are TELL TALE signs of a fake certificate
  4. Do the names match university officials who were appointed at the time of the award?

Our Response to the Red Tape Challenge

We recently responded to the Red Tape Challenge on the topic of relaxing the restrictions on the use of the word “University”. Our response is below.

In brief, we believe the existing protection for the word university should be retained i.e. only institutions granted degree-awarding powers can call themselves a university.

Do you think all regulations relating to names should be repealed?

No – there needs to be some restrictions to protect the public from misleading use of certain sensitive words.

Graduate Prospects runs the HEDD system – Higher Education Degree Datacheck (www.hedd.ac.uk ) – the HE sector’s official verification service, which aims to reduce degree fraud and protect the reputation of UK Higher Education. HEDD flags all legitimate UK degree-awarding bodies, including merged and antecedent universities to help employers identify that applicants to employment have attended bona fide institutions.  HEDD also keeps a database of bogus UK universities – there are currently more than 130 on the site – and well over 300 in the UK and we find new ones all the time. These are flagged on the website to expose degree mills. We are working hard to safeguard student and sector interests – reassuring domestic and international students about the authenticity of a university and protecting the substantial financial and time investment of genuine graduates.

Removal of all restrictions on the use of the word university will make it much harder for people to tell what is a genuine degree-awarding body and what is not, and could do damage to UK Higher Education.

International students are a core market for the degree fraudsters – evident in the many bogus websites that are clearly targeting overseas students; listing fake alumni with predominantly non-British names. The fact that half of HEDD’s enquiries come from outside the UK (particularly China, India, US and New Zealand) suggests global awareness of the problem.

There are already hundreds of companies that are happily breaching regulations daily by taking the ‘university’ name without being a degree-awarding body recognised by the Secretary of State. If we reduce or repeal the red tape surrounding use of the word even further, then this will only exacerbate the problem, leaving the way clear for opportunists to play fast and loose with university naming rights to the detriment of UK higher education.

The Further Education sector has been dismayed by the free abuse of the ‘college’ title, to the extent that government’s plans for the FE sector published in 2011 (New Challenges, New Chances) included the sentence: ‘We are also looking at how we can reinforce the reputation of the sector by protecting FE college titles.’

The sector needs to be confident that only bona fide institutions can legitimately call themselves universities; even more importantly, so do the hundreds of thousands of genuine, hard-working students in the UK and internationally who have invested in a UK degree programme.

Do-It-Yourself Verification?

When candidates apply for roles, they will provide you with a claim as to their academic achievement.

It is in the employer’s interest to ensure that these claims are in fact true, as it is ultimately the employer who will gain peace of mind about the legitimacy of the candidate.

The great thing about HEDD is that we provide the opportunity to verify a candidate’s award without the candidate’s involvement (excepting that you must have candidate consent). You can be sure that a positive result from HEDD means that candidate is a legitimate graduate who holds the award they claim to.

However, one thing that we see very often is employers requesting that candidates verify their own award. But this strikes us as a bit perplexing: If you, as an employer, do not trust a candidate’s claim to hold an academic award, why would you trust their claim to verify that award? Why put a candidate through this unnecessary step?

Putting Self-verification in Context

If you are willing to let a candidate verify their own award, then you might as well accept their claims to hold an award at face value.

If you wish to verify students and obtain total peace of mind, then you must conduct the verification process yourself without the candidate being involved. Anything else is less than the certainty you require and leaves you open to the risk of forged documents followed inevitably by forged verification results.

The Name of the Game

We’re in the Guardian Online today. Check out the piece here.

In brief, there are proposals from BIS to relax the red tape governing the use of certain words in company names etc. Unfortunately one of the words under consideration is ‘university’.

There are already enough fake universities around to cause concern, and currently they can be prosecuted for using the name ‘university’. Making it easier for them is not something we want to contemplate.

BIS are looking for responses to the consultation paper by next week, so if you want to have your say, go to Red Tape Challenge and make your views known.

Under Pressure

A recent report about a Chinese student jailed for attempting to bribe a professor into awarding him his final degree (which he was about to fail) highlights the notion that international students in the UK may be under more pressure than home students.

Of course this is only one case, but university staff who work with international students often tell us they think international students are under enormous pressure to succeed academically.  The weight of expectations from the entire extended family, many of whom will have invested financially or emotionally in their success, can be a burden.  This may be especially so for Chinese students, where there are fewer young people in the family due to the one-child policy.

It’s not just a problem for students who are here.  Back in China there’s a lot of pressure to have foreign qualifications and there seems to be quite an industry churning them out.  Last month the Huffington Post reported that a number of people were found guilty of producing fake certificates from American universities, real and invented, in a scam amounting to 3.4 million yuan. 

It’s easy to find a website that will offer any type of certificate, for any university.  They’ll even promise to match security features. 

At HEDD, most enquiries come from outside the UK and although fake certificates are rare, they do also tend to come from overseas. 

I’d really like to know how international students themselves feel about this so I’m going to post a poll on our sister site Prospects, which gets a lot of traffic from international students.  I’ll report back here on the results. 

Sinéad McGovern – HEDD Business Manager

How to spot a fake UK university

Universities in the United Kingdom have a high reputation of academic excellence. It is no wonder then that ne’er do wells would want to utilise that reputation for their own ends. The UK is home to hundreds of awarding institutions. How do you tell what’s a real UK university and what is not?

In the United Kingdom, the Education Reform Act [1] makes it an offence to claim to offer UK degrees (the title of Bachelor, Master, or Doctor)  without the authority to do so.

When considering UK study or verification a UK qualification, the first port of call is to determine whether that institution is a legitimate degree awarding body. For an institution to award UK degrees, it must either be a recognised body (which has degree awarding powers in its own right) or a listed body (who issues degrees through a recognised body).

Are they on the list?

The first port of call would be to search in the HEDD University Lookup Service for the institution at our home page. Our institution list contains all the recognised bodies in the UK, antecedent institutions, some listed bodies, and some bogus institutions.

The Department of Business, Innovation and Skills also provides lists of recognised and listed bodies within the UK which could be your second port of call. These lists are complete but do not contain antecedent institutions or bogus institutions [2].

What if the institution you are looking to study at or verify from does not appear on these lists? Does that mean it is not a legitimate institution?

Not necessarily and this is because institutions come and go – it could be an old institution or a relatively new one. Recently for example, the University of South Wales is a newly created university which resulted from a merger between Glamorgan University and Newport University [3]. As a result, Newport and Glamorgan will disappear from the BIS list, but they were still legitimate degree awarding bodies in the UK and degrees awarded by them will always be legitimate.

There are some tell-tale signs that should ring alarm bells. One of them is that they do not appear on official recognised or listed body lists. Here are some of the others:

Using the .ac domain name

The top-level domain for the Ascension Islands is “.ac” and what this means is that when you type the address into your web-browser, the suffix will be .ac (example http://www.fakeuniversity.ac).

Many bogus institutions are registered with a .ac address because the Ascension Islands does not put any restrictions on using the .ac domain name.

The reason this is a problem is that the top-level domain used by legitimate educational institutions in the uk is .ac.uk. The .ac.uk domain is tightly regulated and registration is only open to those who have a legitimate reason to use this. Naturally, being an illegitimate degree awarding body is not a legitimate reason to use the .ac.uk domain.

As such, a good indicator that an institution is legitimate is that they have a .ac.uk domain. Any other domain, especially .ac, but also .com, .net, .org, etc, might indicate that something isn’t quite right.

Using fake names and addresses

Many bogus institutions will use fake names or addresses. This plays on the idea that nobody is actually going to check these details.

Our recommendation is to check their bricks and mortar address on Google Maps and ask yourself “Does this look like a university?”. Our experience with looking at the physical address of these institutions is they are either not real addresses or for private residences more suited to housing a small family rather than an institution with UK university status.

One bogus institution listed their address as Galway, Dublin. Galway and Dublin are two cities which are hundreds of miles apart. It does not make sense.

Where there is a suspicion the certificate is fake, it is worth checking the names on the certificate. This includes the registrar who, we find, either does not exist or was not the registrar at the time when the award was purported to be granted.

Poor English

Aesthetically, many of the sites look like they could be legitimate institutions. However, if you look closely at the spelling and grammar you will notice that it is unlikely the author passed their GCSE English. Spelling and grammar are not high on the priorities for illegitimate institutions.

This may be that the sites are designed to target those whose first language is not English. These kinds of mistakes might be missed by a non-native speaker, but they are a dead giveaway for us.

One particular website spelled “Registry” as “Regestry”. Fake certificates often contain spelling mistakes, such as “postgraduate sutdent” or “certified ture copy”.

Promises of Education without Study

The biggest giveaway is a promise of education without study. In the UK, the scope to receive any honour – Bachelor, Master, or Doctor – without study or supervised research is very limited.

As such, any institution which, as a matter of course, claims to offer awards without study is undoubtedly illegitimate.


1. Education Reform Act 1988: http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/1988/40/section/214

2. BIS Recognised Bodies: https://www.gov.uk/recognised-uk-degrees-recognised-bodies
BIS Listed Bodies: https://www.gov.uk/recognised-uk-degrees-listed-bodies.

3. http://www.walesonline.co.uk/news/wales-news/university-south-wales-launches-today-2582465#.UWbU81nRWSc.twitter