‘Prospects chief executive, Jayne Rowley, is interviewed on BBC Radio 4’s File on 4, the award-winning current affairs documentary series investigating major issues at home and abroad.
‘Degrees of Deception’ airs at 8pm on Tuesday 16 January.
File on 4 exposes a multi-million pound global trade in fake diplomas.
A complex network of online universities sells degrees, doctorates and professional qualifications – for a price. Some of the buyers have gone on to trade on these credentials, including them on their CVs and gaining jobs in public life.
Others, after making an initial purchase, were blackmailed by the sellers, who threatened to expose them unless they paid out huge additional sums of money.
Despite criminal investigations in numerous countries, why is there still a thriving trade in dubious qualifications and are institutions and companies taking the issue seriously enough?’
Yes, that’s me. I was interviewed as part of Prospects’ work to reduce degree fraud through our Hedd verification service. I talked about the legislation that’s in place to deal with fraud of this nature – Fraud, Forgery, Trademark and Copyright. I’ll be explaining the regulatory challenge and what needs to happen to curb the issue.
Which, of course, can be boiled down to one simple thing. Making proper verification checks every time.
Listen live or catch up on BBC iPlayer.
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.
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.
Unlike with our friends over at McAllister University or International University Robert Gordon it’s not always straightforward dealing with bogus HE providers.
A bit like the dark web, there is a network of providers operating at the fringes, lurking in the shadows.
There are providers delivering qualifications that may be broadly categorised as ‘higher education’ even though they do not lead to the award of a UK degree.
This may be because the qualification is an award delivered by a UK campus of an institution that is based overseas, or because the qualification is below degree level e.g. a diploma or certificate. These complexities can give rise to confusion among potential students and some unscrupulous providers exploit this by not giving clear information on their websites about their status, nor the status of their courses and the qualifications they offer.
The Department for Education and HEDD receive enquiries from students who believe they are following courses leading to a recognised UK degree due to misinformation from providers. This is particularly common for distance learning or online provision.
If we believe the provider is deliberately misleading students we contact them to ask them to remove information from their website or clarify their status. After 30 days we add their details to the university look up service on HEDD to make it clear they are not recognised degree-awarding bodies.
We have had a number of websites contact us to complain about being so explicit about their status – even threatening us with legal action – but we stand firm.
When a student contacts us because their parents have spent thousands of pounds, remortgaged their house and made huge sacrifices to send them to a UK university, only to find out that it’s not accredited and they have spent their money for nothing, we know we are doing the right thing.
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.
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.
On the face of it The University of Northern New Jersey was a model bogus university. Happy to offer student places, assisting to process student visas and issue certificates and documents with no questions asked, no requirement to attend, no campus and no faculty staff.
Educational brokers flocked to the site to register students and obtain visas – charging students thousands of dollars which enabled them to stay in the United States, knowing full well it was all a front.
What they didn’t know was that this bogus university was itself a fake. The US Department of Homeland Security set up the fake university website in 2013 to catch criminals engaged in student visa scams. Undercover agents posed as administrators dealing with the brokers and paying them commissions of between $1200 and $2000 to recruit ‘students’ in a 3 year sting operation. 21 individuals have now been arrested and over 1000 foreign nationals mostly from India and China face deportation.
All I can hear in my head is the theme tune to ‘The Sting’ and remembering the brilliance of Paul Newman and Robert Redford in the movie. If Redford is available, I’m free.
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.
*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!