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.
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
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.
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 2/3 of graduates from UK institutions and expanding all the time Hedd is the UK’s official HE verification service with over 75 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:
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.
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.
It’s that time of year when mothers wear big hats and graduates don caps and gowns to shake hands with their university Chancellors.
The temptation to pose for photos with that certificate in hand, then share share share on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat is overwhelming and understandable.
Last year we warned against posting certificate selfies as they give fraudsters perfect templates to produce fake degree certificates. Google Images scoops them up and parades them online for eternity. We have issued a press release today to remind people, which media platforms are thankfully picking up.
We’re contacting all university social media teams to ask them to get the message out to their students and also not to re-tweet pictures of their graduates holding certificates.
It’s not just about fake certificates.There’s a serious, personal risk here too. As CIFAS reported today social media platforms are hunting grounds for identity thieves and there has been a 52% increase in identity fraud against under 30’s in the last 12 months alone.
Degree certificates contain personal information – full names, dates of birth (in some cases), places of study, titles, year of graduation. Information like this can be used to piece together someone’s identity for fraud and is as precious and private as a passport, a driving licence or bank details. None of us would put our passports online and we should treat certificates in the same way.
Post smiles, not certificates and stay safe.
Congratulations and appropriate emoticons, by the way.
A couple of months ago we were all giggling over reports that the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs had issued a guide warning Russians of the dangers of selfies.
Last week we discovered another potential selfie risk after large numbers of photo tweets of graduates appeared posing with their degree certificates at ceremonies around the UK. To celebrate their graduates’ successes, these were frequently and innocently re-tweeted by their universities.
Once published and added to the eternal gallery of Google images these photos give anyone looking to make fake degree certificates the current designs for 2015, which they can then duplicate – logo, crest, signatory, stamps, holograms and forms of words.
We contacted every university’s social media team to advise them not to include certificates in their photo tweets and to advise their students not to do so either.
We’ve warned graduates before about publishing their degree certificates. But it’s worth restating in light of the numbers of sites selling fake certificates for as little as £6.95.
These sites rely on having access to real certificates in order for their fakes to pass muster with recruiters. None of us would upload a copy of our passport or driving licence, nor give out our bank details. We should regard our degree certificates as precious and private information to be guarded.
It’s time for our annual survey of student and graduate attitudes and experiences of degree fraud. Please take a few minutes to complete the survey here. Tell us what you think about fraud and those who cheat their way into employment.
Degree fraud went way beyond cutting and pasting fake certificates this week with the jailing of a University of Birmingham student who hacked in to the university’s student record system and upped his grades on 5 pieces of coursework from a 2:2 to a 1st.
Imran Uddin is starting a four month sentence in prison, but a life sentence as far as his future career and integrity are concerned. What university would accept him after this? What employer?
He cites pressure to get a good degree as his reason for doing it – he is the first person in his family to attend university.
A criminal conviction is surely far worse to live with than a 2:2?