What’s the Deal with Fake Education?

As it turns out, it’s a really big problem. I mean, there’s even a whole Wikipedia List of animals with fraudulent diplomas.

The topic of fake education got a lot of press earlier this year, thanks to the huge exposé from The New York Times: “Fake Diplomas, Real Cash: Pakistani Company Axact Reaps Millions.” It’s a massive, lucrative business, with phony high school diplomas starting at $350, and fraudulent doctoral degrees starting at $4000. From the NYT:

“Yet on closer examination, this picture shimmers like a mirage. The news reports are fabricated. The professors are paid actors. The university campuses exist only as stock photos on computer servers. The degrees have no true accreditation.

In fact, very little in this virtual academic realm, appearing to span at least 370 websites, is real — except for the tens of millions of dollars in estimated revenue it gleans each year from many thousands of people around the world, all paid to a secretive Pakistani software company.”

The reality is really kind of depressing, and it’s scary to think about how many people might be victimized by this without knowing any better: “Axact’s main business has been to take the centuries-old scam of selling fake academic degrees and turn it into an Internet-era scheme on a global scale.”

The whole NYT article is a must-read. The stories about well-intentioned people who were preyed upon is painful and sad:

“often the agents manipulate those seeking a real education, pushing them to enroll for coursework that never materializes, or assuring them that their life experiences are enough to earn them a diploma.

To boost profits, the sales agents often follow up with elaborate ruses, including impersonating American government officials, to persuade customers to buy expensive certifications or authentication documents.”

(The use of the CNN logo by way of fake iReport reviews for scamming purposes is definitely something to be aware of).

This fake university website from Pixar isn’t try to sell fake degrees, at least.

The New York Times also published a list, Tracking Axact’s Websites. The troubling part is, some of those websites look better than a lot of legitimate school websites I’ve seen.

Slate (“Will the Real Alice K. Colbert Please Stand Up?“) had some observations about the “faculty” from those school websites that shamefully used nothing more than easy-to-find stock photography, while also relying on deceptive practices that the NYT noted as snake oil formula of fake social media presences, aggressive online marketing and “calculatedly familiar-sounding names, like Barkley, Columbiana and Mount Lincoln.”

While there are lots of credible online education options, I don’t know even know where to start to fix the rampant education fraud. The FTC (“These online high schools didn’t make the grade“) published some information and guidelines, but it’s safe to assume that public awareness is far, far too low about the risks.


You can listen to the Freakonomics podcast (“Freakonomics Goes to College“) here. It’s very good; the opening segment with the former FBI agent on degree mills can be quite an eye-opener:

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