Marketplace buys 3 fake PhDs from world’s leading diploma mill
By Eric Szeto, Nelisha Vellani, CBC News Posted: Sep 10, 2017 6:00 PM ET Last Updated: Sep 11, 2017 9:50 AM ET
A Marketplace investigation of the world’s largest diploma mill has discovered many Canadians could be putting their health and well-being in the hands of nurses, engineers, counsellors and other professionals with phony credentials.
Fake diplomas are a billion-dollar industry, according to experts, and Marketplace obtained business records of its biggest player, a Pakistan-based IT firm called Axact. The team spent months combing through thousands of degree transactions, cross referencing personal information with customers’ social media profiles.
The investigation revealed more than 800 Canadians could have purchased a fake degree.
“Keep in mind this is just the one operation,” said Allen Ezell, a former FBI agent who investigated diploma mills for decades. “This does not give you totality of how many are being sold throughout Canada by all schools that are operating.”
Ezell, who co-wrote the book Degree Mills: The Billion-Dollar Industry That Has Sold Over a Million Fake Diplomas, estimates half of new PhDs issued every year in the U.S. are fake.
The impact of fake degrees is twofold, he said. They devalue legitimate degrees that people spend years and thousands of dollars earning. More importantly, professionals like engineers and health-care workers who lack the proper skills and expertise can put the public at risk.
“All of us can be harmed by any professional that … does not have the full extent of training that his credentials purport that he has,” Ezell said.
“We can be harmed across the board, every day.”
Axact’s school websites are slick, and names like Harvey University, Barkley University and Nixon University give the supposed U.S.-based schools an air of Ivy League authenticity.
There are hundreds of Axact-linked schools that offer a range of educational opportunities with faculty ready to assist 24/7. Some schools even have a degree verification department for any third-party requesting transcripts or proof of attendance.
But none of the schools has a physical address, faculty photos are often stock images, and even the accreditation bodies the websites cite are fake.
One can often qualify for high school diplomas, bachelor’s degrees, master’s degrees or PhDs based on “life experience” and can purchase them for as little as a few hundred dollars.
As Marketplace discovered, Axact customers aren’t shy about touting their degrees on their LinkedIn profiles, or displaying them proudly on their office walls.
‘Those are my certificates’
Gilbert Correces didn’t need any prompting before showing off his credentials to two undercover Marketplace journalists posing as a couple seeking counselling at his Toronto office.
“Those are my certificates up there,” Correces said, pointing to a framed PhD in biblical counselling from Almeda University.
Correces was working as an independent contractor at A1 Counselling. According to his A1 profile, he’s a counsellor, social worker and psychotherapist who specializes in helping people cope with substance abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder and the trauma of child abuse.
“I went to the [United States] to work and study at the same time,” he said of his time working on his dissertation at Almeda University in Boise, Idaho.
His LinkedIn profile says he finished with a 4.0 GPA.
But the PhD and Correces’s alma mater are both fake. Almeda University is affiliated with Axact’s international diploma mill scheme, and is not an accredited post-secondary institution. There is no campus, just a website where customers can trade “life experience” and money for a degree.
“Counsellor” is not a protected title in Ontario — meaning anyone can call themselves a counsellor, regardless of their credentials. “Psychotherapist” and “social worker” are protected titles, requiring a certain level of education and registration provincially with the appropriate professional bodies.
Correces is a registered social worker with the Ontario College of Social Workers and Social Service Workers. But Marketplace could not find his name in the College of Registered Psychotherapists of Ontario database.
Dr. Alan Leschied, a psychologist and professor at Western University in London, Ont., said it’s preposterous people are able to work with questionable credentials.
“Therapy and counselling is not just a benign endeavor — it can provide harm.”
He reviewed parts of the Marketplace counselling sessions with Correces and said there was cause for concern.
“You don’t disclose things of a personal nature, inappropriate, that are focused on yourself … If you’re just telling these stories because you’re trying to be seen by your clients in certain ways … those are boundary violations.”
To see what it takes to get a fake degree, Marketplace — using the anagram Peter Ma Lack, and with the help of former FBI agent Allen Ezell — decided to purchase a PhD in biblical counselling from Almeda University, like the one hanging on Correces’s wall.
Qualifying for a PhD wasn’t difficult. Lack provided Almeda University’s “Professor Keith Evans” a backstory over the phone detailing his work experience and past education. He immediately qualified without ever providing a resume.
Evans then tried to upsell Lack a PhD from Gatesville University, another Axact-affiliated school that claimed to be based in Stockton, Calif.
Lack insisted on a degree from Almeda University, so Gatesville University came back with a package deal: a PhD in psychology from Gatesville University and a PhD in biblical counselling from Almeda University for $3,200 US. After complaining about the hefty price tag, Gatesville lowered it to $2,500.
A parcel arrived in the mail after several weeks, but there was a problem: only one degree was included — a PhD in psychology from Gatesville University.
After hassling Gatesville University for weeks about the missing biblical counselling PhD from Almeda University, the school sent Lack another degree, this time via email.
But there was another problem: the PhD was in psychology, not biblical counselling.
After even more hassling, Gatesville emailed another degree, this time with the correct label.
In total, Marketplace received three PhDs (one for free), transcripts (3.92 GPA) and record of attendance papers.
Total cost: $1,550 US.
Customers ‘not innocent’
With the help of former employees, court documents, and by piecing together digital clues online, Marketplace was able to identify more than 100 fake online schools and accreditation bodies connected to Axact.
Yasir Jamshaid, a former quality assurance employee at the company, said 95 per cent of the education customers “were crooks themselves.”
“They knew they’re buying something that is not real but they’re still going for it. They’re not innocent.”
But he said when he blew the whistle on Axact in early 2015, he recovered approximately $600,000 for about 20 customers who he believes were actually duped. He said some of those customers spent tens of thousands of dollars on their fake education.
“You can tell in his own conscience this person wanted a real education,” he said. “This guy or girl or woman couldn’t get an education while on the job … and they’re really genuine victims.”
Pakistani authorities raided Axact’s office following a New York Times report on the company that quoted Jamshaid. After the company shut down, authorities recovered hundreds of thousands of blank degrees, certificates and other documents from its offices. Several high-level officials were charged. None of them was ever convicted.
But in December 2016, the FBI arrested Umair Hamid, Axact’s assistant vice-president of international relations, who was trying to set up a bank account in the U.S. He originally pleaded not guilty, but in April he pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud in New York’s Southern District Court.
Hamid was sentenced in August to 21 months in prison. He was also ordered to forfeit more than $5 million.
Despite the conviction, it appears to be business as usual for many of Axact’s schools.
In a written response, Axact’s U.S. lawyer, Todd A. Holleman, said the company “does not own or operate any online education web sites [sic] or schools, and there has never been any evidence produced to show that Axact owns or operates any such web sites [sic] or schools.”
Holleman indicated that the diploma mills were created by clients of Axact and that it “does not condone or support any alleged wrongful or fraudulent conduct by its clients, who are independent businesses.”
So who should be responsible for cracking down and protecting Canadians from people with fake degrees?
Ezell believes there’s plenty of responsibility to be spread around, from individuals to professional bodies to police.
“It’s everyone’s problem,” he said. “The people have to do their homework when they’re getting ready to sign up with a school.
“It then goes to the employer when they’re presented with the credentials to check it out. And then if you find something irregular, notify law enforcement.”
Uttering a forged document is a criminal offence that can lead to jail time, said Michael Juskey, a Toronto criminal lawyer.
“If you act upon the document knowing and believing it is not genuine, you are potentially liable for that offence,” he said. “It’s fraud. It’s a crime of dishonesty. Absolutely, you’re opening yourself up [criminally].”
‘I did not cheat’
Weeks after the counselling sessions, Marketplace approached Correces about his fake PhD and asked whether he thought he was violating the trust of his clients.
“I’m not,” he said. “I’m using my skills.”
Correces said he “did not cheat” when asked about having a similar Almeda University PhD as the one Marketplace purchased without doing any school work. Correces insisted he completed his dissertation in order to acquire his degree from Almeda.
A1 Counselling told Marketplace Correces’s contract has since been terminated but would not explain why. His LinkedIn profile has also been taken down.