Be(hold) the front page

Yes. I’m excited to pick up my free world cup giant wall chart….

but more excited that working with the Times over the past week got an important message about degree fraud on today’s front page.

‘Don’t take selfies with your certificates showing’ is the key message, writ large.

The story is here if you can get past the Times paywall.

And here in the Guardian or here in the Daily Mail if you can’t.

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No selfies please!

It’s coming up to that time of year when attention turns to caps, gowns, marquees, prosecco and proud families. It’s also time for our annual warning about graduation selfies. Our latest research shows that we can’t say this too often or too loudly.

We’ve put this out today through our press office and it’s being picked up already. Please spread the word. Thank you.

As more than two thirds of students plan to take graduation selfies this year, Prospects Hedd warns that they could be used to produce fake degree certificates

Prospects Hedd, the official system for degree and university authentication in the UK surveyed 1,068 students preparing to graduate this year.

While 69% plan to include their degree certificate on a photo, 24% will video their achievement.

Seventy one per cent of students plan to share their content on social media, with Facebook and Instagram the favoured channels.

Female students were much more likely to want to take a selfie (73%) and share it (74%) than their male equivalents – 58% and 60% respectively.

Sharing images of degree certificates can unwittingly give fraudsters access to the latest logos, crests, signatories, stamps, holograms and wording, fuelling the multi-million pound trade in fake degrees.

The latest designs can be easily copied onto fake certificates and passed off as genuine to unwitting employers.

Seventy four per cent of students were unaware that images of degree certificates can be used to produce fakes and 66% said that this was a concern.

Awareness is twice as high among males; 41% were aware of the risk compared with 20% of women.

‘Don’t give fraudsters the opportunity to copy your degree certificate. You wouldn’t share a picture of your passport or your driving licence. Degree certificates are no different,’ says Jayne Rowley, Chief Executive at Prospects.

‘Degree fraud affects everyone. After investing time and money in a degree, genuine graduates should not be at risk of losing out in the jobs market to a candidate using a fake certificate.’

Great Scott!

Some men born to the name Scott are great heroes. Think Scott of the Antarctic, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Montgomery ‘Scotty’ Scott, even Barry Scott of Cillit Bang fame. Some however, are not so worthy of the name.

Let me introduce to you, David Scott from Stockton-on-Tees

On the face of it he was the perfect candidate for the job of managing director at Mech-Tool, an engineering company in Darlington in the North East of England that specialised in heat and blast protection in the oil and gas sector. He had three degrees from Imperial College London, Heriot-Watt and Edinburgh Universities, including a First Class Honours in Petroleum Engineering. He had also penned the snappily titled “Non-parametric Regression For Analysis Of Complex Surveys And Geographic Visualisation”, a renowned academic paper within the sector.

Upon being hired his first task was to manage two multi-million pound contracts in Kazakhstan and in return he would receive a £10,000 company car allowance, bonuses, a resettlement package, all on top of a £120,000 salary.

Fair recompense for a challenging high-level job.

Regular readers of the blog will know what happens next. It turns out that a large proportion of what David Scott had claimed was not true. He had actually started life in the Army, where he was introduced to engineering before leaving to work in geo-structural engineering in Libya.

After returning to the UK, and going through an expensive divorce, he fraudulently applied for the role at Mech-Tool. His Bachelors and two Masters were complete fictions, as was his claim to have held an executive position beforehand. As for the ‘renowned academic paper’, this was actually written by his American namesake, Dr David W Scott!

The result for Mech-Tool was near disastrous. Three months after drawing up a strategy plan that, in the words of the judge at his trial, showed Scott was “quite clearly not up to the job”, his colleagues realised as such and after some investigations, discovered the truth. Luckily, the contracts were saved, although payments were delayed however.

At Scott’s trail the judge added: “This was not just claiming an extra GCSE or A level, this was fraud at the highest end of CV falsehood.” This was high culpability deliberate fraud and he sentenced Scott to 12 months in jail.

A company statement from Mech-Tool stated the following: “The business demands the highest standards from its staff and, as such, we have very strict and robust governance and HR processes.”

Not so robust however, to properly check Scott’s degrees.

For just a few pounds and in just a few minutes on Hedd they could have saved themselves a large deal of stress and negative PR, not to mention the millions of pounds that were at stake. Credential fraud will only end when all employers make proper checks on job applicants.

Luckily Mech-Tool have bounced back and predict that the affair “will have no effect on the business as it looks forward to a strong 2018.”

 

By Edward Prichard

The Weakest Link

If you didn’t catch this week’s Panorama exposé on application fraud click here to see how faked qualifications are enabling bogus students to enrol on degree courses, paid for by taxpayer-funded student loans.

The undercover BBC investigation showed fake references and certificates being used to gain places on degree level courses at a number of universities and colleges. Having gained the places, the students then had access to student loans worth thousands of pounds. The rogue intermediaries and agents took their cut of the loans. But this is just the start of it.

The undercover students were then offered additional services to provide their assignments by using essay mills and cover their attendance requirements while they were at work. Now we’re talking about academic fraud.

With their bought-in assignments and fake certificates the students were able to get a genuine degree or diploma, albeit fraudulently obtained*.

Fraudulently obtained degrees could then be used to enter postgraduate study or the workplace putting the reputations of businesses and universities at risk from unqualified candidates. This also jeopardises the prospects for genuine students and graduates seeking jobs or further study if they lose out to fraudsters.

We must cut this off at the pass and stop bogus students enrolling in the first place and exploiting the system.

Unscrupulous agents will look for weak points in the system and colleges without clearly defined policies will be ripe for exploitation. Colleges and universities need to have robust and clearly visible fraud guidelines as part of their admissions policies and they must be prepared to take action against what is criminal activity.

Hedd HE Toolkit image Aug 2017

Download our free Toolkit with advice and guidance on preventing fraud. In the meantime here are our top tips.

  • Have a published policy on application fraud for your college or university
  • Tell applicants you always check qualifications. This can be a deterrent.
  • Don’t take certificates at face value. Verify the claims directly with the awarding body and trust the data, not the paper.
  • Take action against fraud – zero tolerance.

 

*Known as FOG documents. Fraudulently Obtained Genuine documents

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.

The Price of Cheap Beer

Mohammed Dar claims he was offering fake university IDs for students to help them get into student union bars to buy cheap beer.

Searching his home in Stretford Manchester, police recovered:

  • 152 completed forgeries of Manchester Metropolitan University ID cards
  • 42 fake Brunel University cards
  • 7 fake University of Manchester cards
  • 6 fake University of Liverpool cards
  • 4 fake University of Leeds cards.

It reads like a present list on the 12 Days of Fraudmass, but in sentencing Dar to prison the judge nailed it with his comments:

‘You can open a false bank account with a photo ID and an electricity bill….This country and its institutions operate on the basis of trust – trust in documents. Organisations don’t have the time or the resources to go and check whether every document is genuine.’

Fun fact: Prospects verification service Hedd allows enquirers to verify current university students as well as certificates and transcripts from graduates. As an employer if an applicant uses student ID to prove their identity you can quickly establish the truth online at www.hedd.ac.uk. Already covering over 80% of graduates from UK institutions and expanding all the time Hedd is the UK’s official HE verification service with over 100 universities available on the system.

A few months ago we received an enquiry from colleagues in Denmark who had concerns about a UK student applying to work for them. Here’s the ID she provided to them:

my i d card (1)

Her fake passport wasn’t much better quality, but the employer still needed to be sure.

As well as the student ID cards, Dar was using a specialist printer and editor to sell hundreds of items for as little as £20. His phone was full of evidence of customers buying a variety of documents.

Check job or course applicants every time or it could cost your business a lot more than the price of a cheap pint.

Misdirection

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.