The many – always deleterious – faces of credential fraud

An edited book containing contributions from authors from different fields and parts of the world provides eye-opening insight into various aspects of higher education credential fraud, and highlights the erosion of trust in academia and academics that consistently accompanies such cases.

The “Ethics and Integrity in Educational Contexts” series is not the first place you would turn for tales of skullduggery, international police work, kidnapping, murder and an exploding Russian hand grenade. But all this, and a great deal more, are present in Fake Degrees and Fraudulent Credentials in Higher Education, a new collection of chapters on credential fraud in higher education edited by Sarah Elaine Eaton, Jamie J Carmichael and Helen Pethrick.

When the Operation Varsity Blues scandal broke in May 2019, the scale of the crimes seemed shockingly extensive. The United States Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) announced that it had charged 53 people with a number of crimes relating to falsifying information used on applications to universities by 33 prospective students. Among the 53 charged were officials at several universities who were accused of facilitating the fraud.

William R Singer, the designer of the scheme, which involved funnelling US$25 million through a dummy company, was sentenced to three-and-a-half years in federal prison, three years of supervised release, and forfeiture of over US$10 million.

The scheme involved such famous universities as Yale, University of San Diego, Stanford and Georgetown. Among the parents charged was Lori Loughlin, who acted in a number of films and television series, including Full House. She was sentenced to two months in prison, two years of supervised release, a fine of US$150,000 and 100 hours of community service. On his final day in office, President Donald J Trump pardoned another parent, the financier Robert Zangrillo.

However, as Eaton and Carmichael make clear in the first chapter of the book on contract cheating and paper mills, these numbers pale beside the worldwide fake degree industry which has grown in monetary value from US$1 billion in 2015 to US$22 billion in 2022.

Experts peg the cumulative customer base of people who have or have had fake degrees at 4.7 billion. (To put this into perspective, it is more than half of the current population of 8 billion.)

Citing retired FBI agent Allen Ezell, who contributes a chapter to the book, Eaton and Carmichael say at least 700,000 Americans have been customers of diploma mills and fake universities.

Not so fair

Kirsten Hextrum’s contribution (Chapter 5) on athletic credentials in US higher education shows that collegiate athletics – which markets itself as meritocratic – is, in fact, driven by class and race.

Her study of rowing, and track and field (track) programmes at the highly selective university she calls “Coastal-U” (CU) which has 40,000 students, shows that rowers learned to row mainly at expensive private clubs before attending CU.

Given the need for expensive running shoes, track is not a poor woman’s or man’s sport. Twenty-eight of her respondents were women and 19 were men; 11 identified as “people of colour”.

Hextrum’s interviews revealed that 75% of the rowing team came from families earning over US$80,000 a year; almost exactly a third came from families earning more than US$125,000.

Less than 3% of the members of the track team came from families earning less than US$50,000, while 69% came from families earning more than US$80,000.

Hextrum, assistant professor in the School of Language, Culture, and Society, and coordinator of the College Student Services Administration programme at Oregon State, situates these statistics within the context of fierce competition to attend top Ivy and private institutions. This competition affects universities like CU because it serves as what Americans call a ‘safety’ – the university students’ ‘go to’ if they don’t get into their preferred choices.

“This trend is pushing lower-income students, first generation college-going students out of highly selective public universities, the same universities that were built to provide opportunities to white, working-class men,” she writes.

In the book, Steve, a white male rower, is unapologetically aware of this. “I think that rowing definitely attracts a certain ethnic demographic because there are a lot of white, rich, people that have rowed and they’ve done quite well for themselves, and they want their kids to row.” He is equally honest about the financial cost of being a rower.

Taylor, a white woman, told Hextrum that the cross-country track team was “a bunch of privileged white girls”, their family’s wealth allowing for the purchase of new track shoes each month and money to travel to meets.

Marketing of candidates aimed at coaches takes advantage of a loophole in the rules of the National College Athletic Association, which, Hextrum notes, has strict rules about “the type and frequency of recruiting materials universities can send to potential athletes … [but] no regulations on what an athlete can send to a coach”. Predictably, money or the public relations expertise it can buy, talks, by, for instance, procuring help in crafting resumes and e-mails designed to entice the coach.

Hextrum documents how marketing was done by [private] high school coaches: the coaches of nine members of the rowing and track teams were either friends of or had worked with CU’s coaches. “No regulations exist requiring athletes or schools to disclose such conflicts of interest.”

Then there is “athletic recruitment”. One student, George, aspired to follow his father’s footsteps through the gates of CU and onto the track field. His high school teacher’s friendship with the track coach opened a door that his weak academic skills would have otherwise kept firmly shut.

None of this is illegal, writes Hextrum, but these stories “illustrate the fungibility of athletic skill”.

The final part of Hextrum’s study focused on how the application process was finagled for rich, white people like Goose. Though his academics left much to be desired, his presence, a big one since he’s tall and athletic, on his private school’s rowing team’s roster, led to recruitment officers contacting him. “He had not even rowed his first stroke when Coastal-U invited him on an official visit,” writes Hextrum.

LeVar, a black undergrad who hailed from a lower middle-class town, is the exception that proves the rule. He profited from CU’s athletic department’s pull even though, as Goose said of himself, he, LeVar, didn’t have “academic chops”.

Hextrum quotes LeVar as saying: “I didn’t submit an application. You did the athlete application. You did a couple of paragraphs, the personal statement you made, and then, sent in your transcript, and then the coach did the rest” – presumably using his or her “‘sway’ with admissions” that 68% of Hextrum’s respondents bragged to her about.

A diploma mill empire

Allen Ezell, the former FBI agent who led the investigation into Pakistan-based Axact is the author of the book’s longest and most interesting section, Chapter 3, which is titled 'Yesterday, today and tomorrow: A tour of Axact, the world's largest diploma mill'.

Ezell begins with a brief overview of Pakistan’s justice system. Sharia law is a central tenet. Trials are by judge alone. People who have money who are convicted usually serve their time in posh prisons where servants are allowed as are outside meals.

According to Ezell, Axact sold more than nine million diplomas and transcripts drawn on fake universities, almost all of which purported to be “American”. The names included “University of Atlanta”, “Almeda University”, “Belford University” (which grew out of the equally fictitious “Belford High School” that provided transcripts and high school diplomas) and “Gatesville University”.

Shoaib Ahmed Shaikh, founder and CEO of Axact, the company that the FBI said ran these and hundreds of fake universities, named the latter institution after Bill Gates, then the world’s richest man, whom he hoped to replace; later he scaled down his aspirations: he wanted to be “the richest man in Pakistan”, Ezell writes.

Ezell’s comparison of Shaikh with Donald Trump is apt – and not only because each maintained a battery of lawyers ready to file counter lawsuits. One "fraudster operated Trump University which had no academic diplomas, nor transcripts, and the other had thousands of fake universities, had over 2.2 million diplomas, transcripts and accreditation letterheads, etc, at his print shop”.

Ezell details how Shaikh’s employees ‘upsold’ callers, how fake university websites used the US flag, images of the Capitol in Washington, DC, pictures of university campuses and touted the non-existent “JOE BIDEN’s Scholarship Program” which promised an “instant scholarship”.

The ‘circumstances of Karachi’

In May 2015, when news broke that Axact was a fraud, the turbulence hit Pakistan International Airlines, with more than 500 cabin and cockpit crew being fired for fraudulent credentials.

Shaikh was arrested and held in custody, but not for long, Ezell writes, and his offices, which had been shut down by Pakistan’s federal investigative agency, were “‘accidentally’ returned to Axact control when a court order was supposedly misunderstood as Shaikh and 24 other Axact executives were released from prison”.

In January 2016, one of the chief Pakistani prosecutors, Zahid Jamil, suddenly announced he was “disassociat[ing] himself from the case”.

One night, some months later, while the government was negotiating with him to rejoin the prosecution team, in Karachi, “under the cover of darkness, two young males driving a moped drove down his street, stopping at his house. The young male passenger then got off the back of the moped and threw a Russian-made hand grenade at Jamil’s house. He then got back on the moped and they sped away”.

While no one was hurt, Jamil did not rejoin the case, and three other members of the prosecutorial team “distanced themselves from the case due to ‘circumstances of Karachi’, whatever that means”.

Ezell is playing coy with his readers here. For, as he writes a few paragraphs later, since July 2015 he had a pretty good idea of what “circumstances of Karachi” meant.

Ali Norman (aka Norman Siddiki), who “was the head of human resources at BOL Media [also controlled by Shaikh] and had been on loan to Axact” planned to give a press conference on 16 July 2015, at which “he would tell the world about Axact and what was really happening there”.

A day before, “he was assassinated by at least two assailants supposedly on a motorcycle” who shot into his car, hitting him in the head. No one has ever been arrested for the killing. In a later section of his chapter, Ezell lists the kidnapping of three prosecutors and the kidnapping of one Pakistani police official three times (“to be ‘re-educated’”) as other examples of “circumstances of Karachi”.

Daring broadcasts

In 2017, at the behest of Marketplace, an investigative show on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Ezell agreed to pose as Peter Ma Luck.

From Gatesville, which purported to be in Stockton, California, he bought a PhD in psychology for US$1,500; three copies of his transcript with the chosen GPA of 3.92 cost an additional US$500.

From Almeda, advertised as being in Boise, Idaho, Luck bought a PhD in biblical counselling (a discipline that actually exists). He negotiated the price for this PhD down from US$3,200 to US$1,000.

Following the broadcast of the episode on Marketplace, Shaikh closed down Axact’s phone lines for a short period.

A few months after Ezell’s avatar bought his last degree, the BBC aired a story saying that some 3,000 people in Britain had purchased fraudulent degrees from Axact. The BBC also reported that Judge Pervaizul Qadir Memon “had admitted to accepting a bribe” to acquit the defendants in the Axact trial, which led to him being sacked, though he was allowed to keep the bribe money.

“The Axact scandal keeps giving,” Ezell quoted PakWired reporter S Alvi saying in June of 2017 after Judge Pervaizul Qadir Memon, additional district sessions judge, told the Islamabad High Court that he had taken a bribe of approximately US$3,000 in Pakistan rupees in the Axact case; Memon had acquitted all Axact officials citing lack of evidence.

As the press, which, according to Exell, “had a field day”, the chief justice of the Islamabad High Court took the extraordinary legal step – via a suo moto (the court acting on its own) notice – that vacated all of the previous Axact cases and started the judicial process against Axact from square one.

Shaikh is currently appealing his 2018 conviction.

Erosion of trust

Other cases of academic fraud covered in this book include a 2014 Test of English for International Communication (TOEIC) case, one involving results of the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) case in the US in 2015 as well as the unmasking of professors in Nigeria, the US and Canada.

The TOEIC scandal, writes Angela Clark, academic integrity officer at York University (Toronto, Canada), saw the determination that of “58,00 test takers, 58% had invalid results, 39% had questionable results, and only 3% were found not to have cheated”. With his evidence in hand, the Home Office forcibly removed 2,468 of the test takers from Britain, and some 7,200 left on their own after they were warned they would be jailed.

In the TOEFL scandal, 15 Chinese nationals studying in the US paid imposters to take the TOEFL test for them, at a cost of up to US$6,000. “To gain access to the test, the imposters used fake passports, and subsequent criminal charges included conspiracy, counterfeiting passports, wire fraud and mail fraud,” writes Clark.

The more than a hundred fraudulent professors found in 2019 by Nigeria’s executive secretary of the National Universities Commission were unmasked by the requirement that professors upload their qualifications to a national portal.

Most countries, including Canada and the US, however, have little to no national oversight, note Eaton and Carmichael, which makes the 2017 discovery by a news organisation, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, that a professor’s degrees were fraudulent an unusual case. So too was the discovery in California in 2005 that a professor of poetry – who was so highly regarded that he had recently been named California’s poet laureate – had a bogus degree.

Even if we set aside the obvious safety and legal issues surrounding the possession of fraudulent degrees by people who practice medicine or engineering, fraudulent degrees are a serious social/moral concern that threatens to undermine confidence in higher education.

“Professors hold a position of trust within the academy and within society as a whole,” write Eaton and Carmichael.

“When those with bogus credentials pose as legitimate professors, they enjoy the prestige, respect, authority, and trust that comes with having earned a high academic standing … but without the same effort as those who legitimately earned their credentials. Professors with fraudulent credentials violate the trust others have put in them, including the trust from students, colleagues, administrators, and even the public at large.”

Fake Degrees and Fraudulent Credentials in Higher Education, edited by Sarah E Eaton and Jamie J Carmichael and Helen Pethrick, is published by Springer, Switzerland. ISBN: 2731-779X.