Degrees scam: Malaysians among buyers of fake degrees
HONG KONG, Oct 4 — It was the largest case of degree fraud in America, perhaps the world. The investigation into St Regis University, a huge degree mill, ended in jail sentences for its “founders” and some employees in July, and has cast light on the lengths to which sellers of dodgy degrees will go to ensnare people in their web of deceit.
St Regis’ tentacles spread around the globe, with clients across Europe, Russia, the Middle East and Asia, including Hong Kong.
“This was an eight-agency federal criminal prosecution, involving more than 100 countries, 66 real universities known to have had their degrees counterfeited and 150 separate bogus institutions set up by the perpetrators,” said George Gollin, professor of physics at the University of Illinois. He had been monitoring the degree mill since 2002 and passed on a great deal of information to investigators that led to the convictions.
“It is the first case of its kind where we have so much information, so we have an extensive profile of how they operated internationally,” he said.
A statement from the US Department of Justice said St Regis’ customers included teachers, psychologists, engineers and at least one college president. “Many were shipped abroad. The annual degree output from St Regis was about the same as a medium-sized American university,” it said.
Investigators calculated that the organisers netted at least US$7.3 million (RM25 million) from the sales.
“It was the most sophisticated degree mill because they had 125 different websites of high [secondary] schools, colleges, accredited entities, degree transcript storage and credential evaluation companies,” said Allen Ezell, a former FBI agent who has investigated degree mills.
“We now have a better insight into how big this was and how many sales were in the various countries and the type of degrees in demand.”
According to documents unearthed by federal investigators, some 30 Hong Kong people wittingly or unwittingly acquired fake degrees, although several Hong Kong individuals bought more than one degree in the space of a very short period, suggesting they knew very well what they were doing.
Although the vast majority of degrees — more than 9,000 — were sold in the US, large numbers were sold to Britain, Canada, India and Germany. Hong Kong was the 15th largest buyer among 130 states and territories, just behind Malaysia, Singapore and Pakistan.
However, it was the large number of Middle Eastern buyers that first attracted the attention of the US Department of Homeland Security because of fears the degrees might be used to gain admission to US higher degree programmes, or for immigration purposes.
The most popular were degrees in business administration, “because it can be universally applied in all forms in the workplace”, Ezell said.
“But they even operated St Luke’s Medical School — they put MDs out there on the street. These were medical degrees that were not just to hang on the wall, they were going to use them.”
Of 29 degrees known to have been shipped to Hong Kong, almost a third were business degrees, including doctorates, according to court papers.
The degree mill operated from the late 1990s until 2005 when the ringleaders, Steve Randock and his wife Dixie Randock, their daughter, daughter-in-law and four others were indicted on charges that included mail and wire fraud, money laundering and bribery of foreign officials.
All eight chose to plead guilty rather than face a jury trial. In July, Dixie Randock, a secondary school dropout, was sentenced to three years in prison after the three-year investigation involving thousands of documents and seized computer records.
Most of the sales were carried out by Internet spam, court documents said, with Dixie Randock buying up e-mail address lists. On one occasion she included an offer to “buy one degree at full price and get a second degree free“.
Roberta Markishtum, jailed for four months, was Dixie Randock’s former daughter-in-law, who worked as a printer, providing the diplomas complete with seals and fictitious signatures. Using the name Jennifer Green, she also answered the phone at the operation’s “official transcript record centre”, verifying the authenticity of degrees for employers who thought they were calling an office in Washington, court documents said.
While the Randocks have been jailed, some of their overseas associates are beyond the US courts’ jurisdiction.
At one point St Regis had “deans of studies” based in Hong Kong and Athens. One-time “dean of studies” for the “St Regis School of Business” was “professor” Steve Ho based in Hong Kong.
Ho also cropped up as “dean of studies” for the bogus “St Regis School of Martial Arts”, among other things purporting to teach martial arts by distance learning using “streaming video displays”.
Investigators found e-mails between Ho and St Regis defendants confirming that degrees had been sent to Hong Kong. “It is clear from the material unearthed, that Ho was a significant party,” Gollin said.
Some overseas associates have run their own businesses, which combine degrees from real institutions with those from bogus ones, including St Regis, further muddying the waters. Some investigators fear that through such combinations the degree mill operators may have infiltrated genuine bodies, including accrediting organisations.
There is also evidence that degree mills had been able to pay bribes to government officials in order to get accreditation papers.
“St Regis is the first degree mill I have seen where they have got inside the department of education of another government,” Ezell said.
The investigation revealed that a high-level Liberian diplomat based in Washington had solicited cash bribes in return for providing Liberian accreditation for St Regis and other diploma mills.
Ezell said the operation was “very good at surgery”. “A photo showing one St Regis campus was actually a picture of Blenheim Palace in England, birthplace of Winston Churchill.
“The faculty portraits showed that heads of Africans had been grafted on to the body of white men, they were black faces with white necks.”
In July 2005, US agents staged a sting in a meeting with St Regis officials, posing as investors looking to purchase accreditation for universities.
The agents secretly taped Abdullah Dunbar, who was the Liberian embassy’s deputy chief of mission, demanding US$5,000 and a paid trip to Liberia to finalise accreditation for the fictitious university. A month later the authorities raided offices in Arizona, Idaho and Washington state, confiscating computers and degree-printing equipment.
The main perpetrators have been brought to justice, but Gollin said he believed unscrupulous former overseas associates of the degree mill could well be using similar methods to continue selling bogus degrees worldwide from non-US bases. — South China Morning Post
Perhatian! BHO Tidak Akan Bertangungjawab Di Atas Komen-Komen Anda