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.

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!

Burundi!

It seems the Ascension Islands .ac domain is not the only refuge of bogus universities. An old bogus site has taken up residence at www.bransfield.edu.bi

There doesn’t appear to be any restrictions on the .edu.bi domain – typically we’d expect only education providers based in Burundi to qualify to use it. Wikipedia suggests a ‘liberal policy about domain names’.

Spot the Difference

BU ESSEC

Copying information from a number of UK universities and a campus building picture from a French Business School (above), it offers an online verification service for its certificates. The entire site is a sham designed to support its ‘graduates’ and fool the employers they apply to.

It works too.

A quick look at LinkedIn Bransfield University alumni shows them working all over the globe with their Bachelors, MBAs and PhDs.

  • English co-ordinator at a Global International School in Saudi Arabia
  • Senior Analyst at Computacenter, Selangor, Malaysia
  • Saw Singulation Operation Module Engineer at Intel Technology, Kulim
  • IT Manager in rail and road transportation, Germany
  • Current Bransfield student working in Import and Export, Turkmenistan.
  • Marketing & Sales Manager at Design and Build Real Estate Co., Saudi Arabia

For Pete’s Sake

We’ve had the frustrating situation of re-looking at the American University of London over the past couple of weeks after another complaint about them to the government.  We are still not being able to pursue them through Trading Standards nor through the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau as a bogus university, on a technicality.

They are very careful how they word their websites, how they register themselves in the UK (avoiding the word ‘university’ and using the acronym AUOL Online Ltd) and maintaining only a mailing address in London in the name of their licensee. American University of London Inc is registered in the West Indies, where UK laws can’t touch them.

However, tuition fees are paid into a UK bank in Beaconsfield, home to the university President Michael Nimier and Registrar Sonia Grimes. Although it now offers a mobile number and 0800 number for contact on the main website, one of their old domains for the website http://www.americanuniversity.com still carries the Beaconsfield phone number they were using.

If you remember, they were the subject of the Newsnight investigation in 2013. You can see the BBC report here and watch the video of the reporter getting Pete the dog his MBA. My angry open letter to Jeremy Paxman is here on the blog too. (I was more than a little cross)

It seems all we can do is keep highlighting the fact that they are NOTHING TO DO WITH the University of London, who hold the trademarks to that name. They DO NOT have the power to award recognised UK degrees and DO give out MBAs for money to any man and his dog – literally.

Let’s hope any innocent would-be students see this post on their Google results ahead of parting with £50 to apply for a course, or four figure sums for an unrecognised degree.

For the fraudsters happy to buy degrees, let’s hope employers see this post or check your ‘qualifications’ on HEDD before offering you that job.

Failing that we’ll set Pete on them.

Government Cracks Down on Bogus Providers

Government launches service to combat fake universities

The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) and graduate careers expert, Prospects have launched a new service to reduce higher education fraud in England.

The service has been commissioned by BIS to proactively address issues concerning bogus institutions and the misuse of the word ‘university’ as well as to tackle the related area of degree fraud. It aims to reduce the burgeoning number of unaccredited institutions by increasing prosecutions through investigation and awareness-raising.

Bogus providers will be targeted by Higher Education Degree Datacheck (HEDD), Prospects’ degree verification service. Perpetrators found to be masquerading online as genuine with degree-awarding powers will be added to the database of bogus institutions. HEDD will investigate who owns the websites and where they are hosted, liaise with Trading Standards and other enforcement bodies, including those overseas, to prosecute and force closure. A HEDD fraudline (0845 077 1968) has been set up for advice or to report dubious organisations.

From July a toolkit will be available to support genuine UK HE providers who find themselves victims of copycat websites. An awareness campaign will provide clearer guidance on the surrounding issues.

Jo Johnson, Universities and Science Minister announcing the project at the Going Global 2015 Conference in London said:

“We have appointed Prospects to help us expose unscrupulous organisations and remove misleading websites wherever they make an appearance.

Such action is in the interests of all legitimate providers and genuine students because it will help protect the reputation of the UK as a provider of high-quality education.”

 Since HEDD launched four years ago, awareness of the risks of degree fraud is increasing and employers are becoming more vigilant. In March 2014 HEDD processed 2023 enquiries, for the same period this year it handled 2315 checks, marking a 14% increase.

Jayne Rowley, Business Services Director who runs HEDD at Prospects said:

“Degree fraud is a serious problem; in the first quarter of this year alone we added 42 bogus institutions to the database and there are thousands of fake degree certificates in circulation. While HEDD has made it easier to verify whether an institution is genuine, the extent of the service ended there. We now have the structure in place to investigate and report fake university providers to the relevant authorities”.

“It’s easy to see why people would be tricked into thinking they could get a genuine degree from these websites. On the surface they appear credible; they use the word ‘university’ in their title and many imitate legitimate sites with all of the information you’d expect from study guides to lecturers’ words of welcome and student testimonials. Innocent applicants can be duped out of thousands of pounds to end up with a worthless piece of parchment with a fancy seal. From our investigations we’ve also found that what have been described as ‘campuses’ are actually just mailing addresses or virtual offices and ‘course work’ can amount to no more than listing your skills based on life experience or specifying the degree you want, for as little as £30. If you are offered a degree for little effort and a minimal fee, you have to question its legitimacy.”   

Sheikh Down

The International New York Times recently published a story following a long investigation into an alleged network of diploma mills and bogus websites controlled by Pakistani software company Axact.

I’d recommend it as an Diploma Mills 101 course in how to scam the world.

This is degree fraud on a global scale with 370 websites cited by the New York Times as being part of the operation and individuals being duped out of multi-millions of dollars and pounds by unscrupulous and clever operators.

Until now the company has been able to hide and slide away from prosecution using fall guys to take the rap. But at last it seems they have run out of lives.

The BBC has full details here.

Axact’s CEO Shoaib Sheikh and his deputy Waqas Atiq, were taken into custody after a raid at their Karachi office last week. Officials said hundreds of thousands of blank degree forms, student cards and authentication documents were found.

We will follow the story with interest. if you want to know more about the alleged fake universities there’s a list here. Most have American- or British-sounding names and the sites have convincing testimonials and videos from smiling academics, students and alumni. The universities are endorsed by equally fake accreditation bodies and verification services to back up their fake credentials and fool employers.

Jo Johnson, UK Minister for Universities and Science announced this week that we here at Prospects have been commissioned to proactively seek out bogus providers and shut them down. Watch this space to see us going all Liam Neeson over the next few months.

Dear Mr Paxman

AUOL

(click on the picture to enlarge it)

Dear Mr Paxman,

You could have saved yourself a lot of time last night on your bogus university story if you had just gone to HEDD and looked up the American University of London. In a matter of seconds you would have seen that it is not a valid UK degree-awarding body.  Passing on to viewers the valuable information that you can look up all valid UK degree- awarding bodies, past and present on HEDD would have been helpful too – particularly to the individuals on social networking sites proudly citing their AUOL qualifications. According to the BBC coverage today, at least one of them has had a rethink and removed it from his CV. 

I wonder how many others have also done so?