Updated: Apr 22
The internet: home to marketplaces for sketchy workout supplements, fake driver’s licenses and even counterfeit degrees to prove you went to college — even if you never did.
In the digital age, graduating from college is a breeze, and I’m not talking about the University of Phoenix online.
Now, degree replication companies can build college documents from the ground up with a custom degree and transcript, all for a simple, one-time payment of $300. They’ll even throw in a second copy for free if you leave a review.
I, a journalism student paying over $32,000 a year in tuition fees, can now identify as a computer science graduate from Belmont University for 100 times cheaper.
How to get a fake degree
So, how easy is it to obtain a fake degree?
It’s not that difficult at all. In fact, it might be easier than any introductory course in college. All you need is access to the internet and payment information.
Google “fake degree” and several options pop up. I chose DiplomaMakers because it seemed to offer the best quality for a decent price. The website didn’t look too sketchy either. And hey, the company brands itself as the “No. 1 in customer service.” Can’t beat that.
You can get as general or specific as you wish.
For degrees, you can specify the type of degree you want and add any honors you wish to graduate with. You can choose your major and minor, designate the date of your graduation and get your diploma signed by a phony president and provost.
A screenshot of the DiplomaMakers.com home page
Want it framed or in a padded cover? They’ll do it for an additional fee.
For transcripts, DiplomaMakers allows you to upload a spreadsheet of your desired classes, any GPA you want and your student ID at no additional cost. This allows customers to align with real courses provided at the university of their choosing.
An excerpt from my course description document sent to Diplomamakers.com
I chose to go as in-depth as possible, using Belmont’s course catalog for computer science to meet major requirements. I even added general-education classes I took throughout my time at Belmont.
Three days after I placed my order, a representative emailed me a free digital proof. The representative made changes at my request after some back-and-forth correspondence. All I had to do was give the nod of approval, no questions asked. This must be the “No. 1 in customer service” you pay for. Within a day, I received my documents in the mail, postmarked from Nevada.
What takes most undergraduates four years of late-night study sessions in the library, early morning coffee runs and eight semesters of finals to achieve, I held in my hands after one week.
“It’s just an easy thing to do. It’s easy to be fraudulent,” says Steven Reed, a former Belmont registrar who’s analyzed educational documents for over 25 years.
“This is darn close, actually.”
Reed, who worked as Belmont University’s registrar for 20 years, slides his fingers across the fake degree, pointing out all the discrepancies.
“This is typically raised on a diploma,” said Reed, pointing to the seal and bold heading on the top reading the university’s name, normally embossed on a real Belmont diploma.
“If you’re just handling this, right stock, but lots of things are incorrect. You don’t have the right seal; you don’t have the right signatures. There’s not lines under it.”
In his time as registrar, Reed spent a lot of time handling transcripts and degrees and can spot a fake just by looking at the document. But others, employers included, Reed says, aren’t as fortunate to have the same training or expertise as he.
Fake Degree from DiplomaMakers.com — heading and seal were not embossed, fake signatures and no signature lines
“It’s exceptionally difficult, because if you look at this, this looks real,” said Reed. “These are done really well. This is darn close, actually.”
Transcripts run in a very similar vein to the degrees: easy to catch for the trained eye, but easy to fool for the untrained.
For comparison, I ordered my actual transcript from Belmont’s registrar, and the transcript I received was quite different than the one I purchased.
All the information on both transcripts is similar, but the layout, font and organization of information are not.
Specifically, the seal was different and not in line with Belmont’s new seal. However, the transcript I ordered was intended for the year prior with the university’s old seal.
Fake transcript from DiplomaMakers.com; Different seal and fake signature
Belmont, like other institutions, has security measures built into its transcripts. This includes an underlying watermark on the transcript paper and official envelopes of delivery.
On the back, the real transcript explains how to check for authenticity. The fake transcript does not. There is also contact information for Belmont printed on the back of the real document.
Back of real Belmont transcript with instructions to check authenticity
The fake transcript does not attribute the transcript to the Office of the Registrar like most institutions, but rather the Office of Admissions, pointed out Kellie Meeks, who is an administrative assistant for Belmont’s Curb College.
The employer would have to be familiar with Belmont’s transcripts in order to catch a fake, Reed said. Not all employers have the luxury of comparing transcripts side by side.
“Transcripts are more and more, as well as copies, being sent just because the company wants to get it quickly. And in this case, if you’ve got that in a PDF, how would you know?” said Reed. “The PDF then doesn’t give many tactile signals, number one, and a lot of businesses are not going to dig that deep.”
As for the legality of it all?
The fact of the matter: what these companies produce is illegal. Since a diploma and a transcript are considered legal documents, attempting to pass the documents as legitimate credentials remains fraudulent, Reed said.
It is a class A misdemeanor to produce and sell fake degrees and transcripts and a class C misdemeanor to attempt to pass on the documents as true, according to Tennessee Code § 39-17-112.
Reed, who also worked as the director of postsecondary education at the Tennessee Higher Education Commission for six years, assisted in both state and federal investigations to crack down on several fake degree scams.
As director, he helped shut down false document producers in Tennessee. But in his experience, rarely do the fake degree mills completely dissolve.
“The idea is to fine them out of operation. The difficulty is that they simply leave and reincorporate under a different name in a different state or go offshore,” said Reed. “If they’ve got all these things on a hard drive, they can reproduce something anywhere. We’re in a different world.”
Fake diploma designers attempt to pass their businesses off as diploma replicators, claiming it’s for fun or unofficial purposes, said Reed, making it difficult to prosecute degree mills in court.
There’s a reason people get fake degrees, and it’s not for replication purposes.
“Consumers want the product, even though it’s illegal, because to flash, a diploma, or a transcript, a lot of people don’t know what to look for and simply accept them,” said Reed.
They get the job done
“There are various numbers of original-looking, fake degree certificates that may easily shape your career,” reads the DiplomaMakers website.
“If it happens that you lost a job simply because you do not own a certificate in spite of having enough knowledge in that job it can create pressure. Using this fake certificate, you can possibly make it to a greater height, that would take a great time and lot of money to attain.”
DiplomaMakers knows how to market its product. But there is some truth to the sales pitch.
In his tenure at THEC, Reed interviewed several individuals who’ve gotten caught red-handed, and one reason always stood out.
“It was to get the job. It’s that simple… The higher percentage was promotions in a job where it required an advanced degree,” said Reed.
“The company might actually need you to have those credentials, but you can’t prove them. Except by sending something like that. But as long as there’s a service that’s willing to do it, and you want it, who’s going to tell?”
The last line of defense
You’ve made it this far. You’ve gotten your fake degree in the mail and you’re willing to commit fraud with it.
But, as the world becomes more technologically reliant, it also becomes harder to fake it until you make it.
It’s easier to recreate the physical document than to get the document authenticated by an institution, said LaKecia Hudson, human resources generalist for Belmont University.
If a company checks an applicant’s educational history, the applicant needs to make sure his or her name shows up in the university’s database.
“I would have to jump through a lot more hoops to make sure that happens,” said Hudson. “I’d have to digitally make sure my name pops up.”
Hudson and other human resources workers use digital tools from companies like HireRight to run automated background checks for job candidates; this includes an education check for some positions.
HireRight claims to possess a 92% verification rate within the U.S., according to its website, and its technology is becoming more mainstream as human resources departments begin to process all documents digitally.
Departments “may not actually get physical transcripts anymore. They may be all digital,” said Hudson.
Hudson’s human resources department may be diligent enough with the help of outside contractors to spot discrepancies, but there is always a little wiggle room for fraudulent papers to sneak through.
Although not common, Reed saw a few fake transcripts sneak into faculty personnel files at higher institutions while he worked at THEC, which is usually due to negligence or purposeful ignorance.
Reed says it may not be a lack of trying, but rather a culture of rewarding loyalty.
“Some of the companies don’t really check hard because they have someone who’s been with them for 15 years and does a great job, but they’re not eligible, and so the credential shows up and now they are.”
Businesses with poor human resources practices, training or financial funding are especially at risk.
These businesses may not be able to invest in a contract with a company like HireRight and sort through transcripts and applications manually.
“There are probably some really big HR people that, while they are aware of fake documents, are probably getting so much, it’s not something they’re going to dig hard at. They don’t have time. They don’t have the staffing.”
A victimless crime?
Though it seems harmless fraud that can only be used to help my career, if I were to use my degree and transcript to get a job, I would be harming others outside of myself.
“It unfortunately perpetuates what people think is a victimless crime,” said Reed. “But at the same time, what you’re doing is degrading everybody else who’s got legitimate credentials, and somebody probably didn’t get a job that really has the real credentials.”
Moreover, the risk of getting caught isn’t worth trying to cheat. Even if I didn’t care about cheating others, the victim could be me, the consumer.
“You are sticking your neck out,” Reed said. “If a company caught that and fired you for giving false credentials, they can sure as heck tag your file. So if you ever apply to another job, and you’re trying to get a reference, good luck.”
The end may not be worth the means. Taking the easy way can make a victim out of anyone ⎯ anyone except the people printing the product.
So, what shall I do with my fake diploma and transcript?
Well, nothing. To me, it’s not worth anything more than the awareness of the subject and a good story. Along with $300.
Now, it sits in a frame on my newsroom desk. But as a joke rather than an accomplishment.
PHOTO: Fake Degree from DiplomaMakers.com
This article was written by David Pang.