Degree Mills: A Country Littered With Fake Degrees

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In “Degree Mills,” authors Allen Ezell and John Bear show how degree mills operate, how to check up on anyone’s degree and what to do when a fake degree is discovered.
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The California-based degree mill called Columbia State University, which pretended to be in Louisiana and sold its PhDs by return mail for $3,000 each, made bank deposits of well over $10 million, perhaps as much as $72 million, during its last four years of operation.

Do you know where your doctor, lawyer or professor earned his or her degree? You might want to double-check the fine print because a diploma on the wall is no guarantee. In Degree Mills, former FBI Agent Allen Ezell (Retired) and John Bear, Ph.D., expose the underground world of degree mills. A world where sales exceed $500 million a year and over a million fake degrees hang proudly in doctors’, clergymen’s and other professionals’ offices. Find out what constitutes a degree mill and how government agencies have responded to this blight throughout history in this excerpt from “Introduction: Another Day at the Office.”

For Nicolas Tanasescu, it’s just another day at the office

He takes the trolley from his flat at the western edge of Bucharest, Romania, and gets off at Calea Victoriei. He walks half a block down a nondescript street in the business district of the Romanian capital city and turns left into a narrow passageway, Pasajul Victoriei. Number 48 is an old red-brick two-story building. Downstairs is a bar, “TZ’s Cotton Club,” and a modeling agency called Top Model. Nicolas climbs an unmarked wide staircase leading to the upper floor.

It is nearly 10 p.m., and there is a steady stream of men and women climbing those stairs for their night’s work. The office runs twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, but the 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. shift is the busiest, with about fifty people–Romanians, South Africans, and a scattering of other nationalities–sitting at computer terminals in what they call the DL Room: an array of small drab cubicles.

Most are in their twenties and thirties. All of them speak excellent, if slightly accented, English. Like most of the others, Nicolas earns just over a dollar an hour. That’s not a great wage even in this economically depressed country, but with unemployment around 10 percent, he is glad to have work.

He fits a telephone headset and microphone apparatus to his head, adjusts the small computer screen, and settles in for his night’s work: telephoning potential customers all over North America.

The office manager, who is also the owner of the business, strolls up and down the aisles, amiably nodding and smiling at his employees.

He is a short, plump, bald American who looks to be in his sixties and sports a white beard and always wears an American baseball cap. He is, in fact, a rabbi from Boston, Massachusetts, who divides his time between Romania and another branch of his business in Jerusalem, where the office closes for the orthodox holy day at sundown on Friday.

On an average day, he earns more than $150,000. A million dollars a week. Fifty million dollars a year. And he’s been doing this for many years.

His business is selling fake university degrees, by telephone, to people all over the United States and Canada. More than two hundred thousand degrees have been sold to date, including bachelor’s, master’s, MBAs, doctorates, law degrees, and medical degrees in every possible specialty, from neurosurgery to pediatrics.

What’s going on here?

This is one of the most recent and most ambitious manifestations of a business that has been around since at least the fourteenth century: the selling of university degrees to people willing to pay the price and to take the risk.

Nicolas dials his first client, a businessman in Cleveland who has responded to an unsolicited e-mail by leaving a message on an answering machine somewhere in New York City. “Hi, this is Nicolas. I’m a registrar with the University Degree Program. I apologize for my European accent. We just wanted to contact you to tell you that, because we have some spaces left in our program, we reduced our registration fee by more than $2,000. What I am going to tell you is very important, so if you don’t understand everything I say, just let me know. If now is a good time for you, I’ll explain our new program and answer any questions that you might have.”

The odds are one in three that within the next fifteen minutes, Nicolas will make a $2,000 sale, perhaps more if the man in Cleveland decides to buy two or three degrees complete with transcripts and a degree-verification service.

Just another day at the office.

We estimate that Nicolas’s employer has sold more than $450 million worth of fake degrees to Americans and Canadians. And he is employed by just one of many sellers of fake and worthless degrees, each of whom is earning many millions of dollars a year.

We know these numbers through a combination of methods: unhappy “deep throat” employees who supply the information, detective work of various kinds, and the most accurate means, the inspection of the evidence collected in those cases when federal search warrants are executed. (There has been no search at Nicolas’s employer.)

For example, the California-based degree mill called Columbia State University, which pretended to be in Louisiana and sold its PhDs by return mail for $3,000 each, made bank deposits of well over $10 million, perhaps as much as $72 million, during its last four years of operation. An employee of Columbia State testified before Congress that her employer took in more than a million dollars a month over one six-month period in 1998.

When the FBI executed a search warrant at LaSalle University in Louisiana (not to be confused with the real LaSalle in Pennsylvania), they found evidence of $36.5 million in recent bank deposits and were able to seize $10.75 million that had not yet gone toward the lavish lifestyle of the university’s founder.

And a most interesting window into the world of these entities opened a crack with an advertisement for the sale of Almeda University, self-admitted seller of “bogus . . . degrees.” The ad, run in a Boise, Idaho, newspaper, offered the “university” for sale for up to $5 million, saying that annual revenue exceeded $3 million, and, rather candidly, said that the reason for selling was bad press in Florida from cops that got caught with bogus Almeda degrees.

In 2011, we estimate the worldwide sales of fake degrees at $300 million per year or more. Over the last decade, fake degree sales have easily exceeded a billion dollars. At an average cost of $1,000 per degree, a low estimate, this suggests at least one million customers.

Is this selling of degrees something new? Not at all. It has been identified as a major national problem for nearly one hundred years. Here’s a brief overview of the history of the problem.

In the 1920s, there were dozens of page-one degree-mill stories in the New York Times alone: “Diploma Mill Facts Laid before Senators,” “Says 15,000 Have Bought Bogus Medical Diplomas,” “Spiegel Held for Selling Fake Law Degrees,” “3,000 Fake Diplomas Obtained in Chicago,” and so on. US Senate hearings on degree mills were held in 1924, but no action was taken.

This pattern–problem, concern, publicity, demand for action, and then nothing–was to repeat itself several times in the decades to come, roughly in twenty-year cycles.

In the 1940s, the National Education Association established a Committee on Fraudulent Schools and Colleges and launched a “crusade” against degree mills, publishing articles in their journal with titles such as “Degrees for Sale.”

In 1950, Benjamin Fine, the distinguished education editor of the New York Times, stated that there are “more than 1,000 questionable or outright fraudulent schools and colleges in the United States.”

In 1959, US Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare Arthur S. Flemming stated in a US Office of Education press release dated October 29, 1959, that “Degree mills have become such a blight on the American educational scene that I have come to the conclusion that the Department of Health, Education and Welfare has a responsibility about them.”

A year later, Flemming wrote:

“I am not so optimistic as to believe that we have uncovered all degree mills since public attention was drawn to this situation five months ago. Therefore . . . we will continue to make known the existence of degree mills whenever we find them operative. It is in the public interest for us to create a national and international awareness of the inadequacy and utter worthlessness of degree mills.”

Twenty years later, Allen Ezell’s DipScam task force in the FBI marked the first and, still, the only time that a government agency seriously dealt with the problem. But with Ezell’s retirement in 1991, DipScam ended.

In 1985 and 1986, Rep. Claude Pepper’s Subcommittee on Diploma Fraud concluded that more than five hundred thousand Americans were currently using fake degrees, more than five thousand of them medical degrees.

In 1998, Ezell and John Bear addressed a group of federal personnel officers and federal background investigators, giving information on the growth and seriousness of the degree-mill problem. A good many people left that auditorium in Pittsburgh seemingly determined to do something about this national problem.

In the summer of 2003, Ezell and Bear were invited to Washington by the Office of Personnel Management as principal speakers in two four-hour workshops on degree mills. Nearly five hundred HR and security officers left that hall seemingly determined to do something about the problem. In 2004, a diploma-mill summit was held in Washington, where representatives of the FBI, the FTC, the Government Accountability Office, the Office of Personnel Management, the House of Representatives, and the Senate vowed to “protect the federal workforce” from the scourge of fake degrees.

Later that year, the Office of Personnel Management held two more workshops on degree-mill issues for hundreds more HR and security officers. In May, the US Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs, chaired by Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, held two days of hearings titled “Bogus Degrees and Unmet Expectations: Are Taxpayer Dollars Subsidizing Diploma Mills?” In July, the Council for Higher Education Accreditation held a two-day workshop, focusing both on degree mills and accreditation mills.

Is Washington really waking up to the problem? Or is this just another cyclical resurfacing of concern that will fade away just as it did in the twenties, the forties, the sixties, and the eighties? Have things gotten so out of hand–like Nazism in the thirties, civil rights abuses in the fifties, or drugs in the seventies–that this time it cannot be easily ignored?

As we have both watched and participated in various events up through 2011, we have grown increasingly pessimistic. Perhaps the most telling thing about Senator Collins’s hearings was that there was absolutely no presence of any law enforcement agency.

No speaker urged the participation of the FBI, the postal service, the Secret Service, or any other enforcement agency to help with the problem.

No one suggested asking the US Attorney’s office to initiate a criminal investigation.

No one suggested impaneling a federal grand jury, which could subpoena the records of the less-than-wonderful schools that refused to furnish such information to the committee.

No one noted that the fake-degree service called Degrees-R-Us, from which Senator Collins purchased two degrees more than three years earlier, was still in business and still selling fake degrees.

Two senators present, both former attorneys general, joked that if they were still in office, they would know how to handle the degree mills.

And when Congressman Howard P. “Buck” McKeon’s Subcommittee on 21st Century Competitiveness subsequently held a hearing titled “Are Current Safeguards Protecting Taxpayers against Diploma Mills” (one-word answer: “no!”), he reminded the public that an earlier investigation determined that federal Head Start funds, intended for early childhood education programs, had been used to purchase fake degrees–and that, astonishingly, it was still not illegal to do this.

Maybe good things will happen. Maybe there will be some significant changes. But change often requires outrage. A woman might spend years petitioning for a traffic light on a busy corner, but nothing happens until a child is killed by a speeding car. Attempts to launch a health-care program for the elderly were ineffective for half a century until enough people got sufficiently angry that Congress finally listened and Medicare came into existence.

It is not just the occasional user of such degrees discovered by an employer, the media, or a law enforcement agency. It is truly a national, indeed an international, epidemic in which hundreds of thousands, very likely millions, of people are using degrees they did not earn.

But unlike a medical epidemic, in which one can observe large numbers of people suffering from smallpox, measles, and so forth, these fake degree cases are uncovered one at a time, often far from the glare of publicity. And when there is publicity, it is generally local at best and quickly forgotten.

Infrequently, a fake-degree case gets national attention, as happened in 2003 with the newly hired and almost instantly fired Notre Dame football coach who didn’t have the degree he had been claiming to have for years. Generally, when the media do address the issue–a 60 Minutes degree-mill segment in 1978 and a second one in 2005, a 20/20 segment, and three Good Morning America reports in the early 2000s–they seem to be in the category of just another nine-(or fewer) day wonder: the buried Chilean miners, the landing of a jetliner in the East River, a pop star’s latest antics . . . and, oh yes, here’s a prominent politician, business leader, minister, or professor with a fake or useless degree.

In rare instances, the media have had a major impact, but only, it seems, if they pound away at the issue until it truly cannot be ignored. One of the rare instances of success was in 1983 at a time when many suppliers of fake degrees had moved from California to Arizona. The largest newspaper in the state, the Arizona Republic, assigned its two top investigative reporters, Rich Robertson and Jerry Seper, to the story, and what emerged was a devastating report, featured on page one for four consecutive days under the headline “Diploma Mills: A Festering Sore on Arizona Education.” To show readers, and the legislature, how easy it is, the paper even founded its own university and accrediting agency.

Now the issue could no longer be ignored in Arizona. Under mounting pressure from the public and the educational establishment, the Arizona legislature promptly took action, and within a matter of months, every one of Arizona’s several dozen active phonies had either closed or, more commonly, moved on to Louisiana, Utah, Florida, Hawaii, and other states that at the time had no laws to prevent this sort of thing.

Much more common, alas, was the response of an editor at a major Honolulu newspaper, when we notified him that a notorious diploma mill operator, Edward Reddeck, had just set up shop in Hawaii. “We report the news,” he said. “We don’t make the news.” Many months, and untold victims later, the postal inspectors closed this place down, and then it made page-one headlines.

What will it take to make these matters a national concern and a national priority? Clearly it needs to be more than “just” people like these with fake degrees:

• the founder of a popular sex therapy clinic in upstate New York who bought his PhD for $100
• the fake MD in North Carolina convicted of manslaughter when a child he took off insulin because “she did not need it” died
• the head of engineering for a major city’s transit system
• the superintendent of schools for California’s second-largest school system
• the coaches of two major university sports teams and the head of the US Olympic Committee, discovered within weeks of each other
• the fire chief for one of our largest cities
• generals in the Pentagon, scientists at NASA, and high-ranking officials in the Department of Defense, the Department of Homeland Security, and even in the White House Situation Room, all with fake degrees: all publicly noted, occasionally written about, and pretty much dismissed as isolated and presumably rare incidents.

We don’t have a single “magic bullet” solution. We only hope it will not require a major and dramatic incident to bring about the needed awareness and changes: a pilot with fake credentials who crashes his jumbo jet, a scientist with fake credentials who sets free a plague virus, or the havoc that could be wrought by one of the many “engineers” with fake doctorates in nuclear engineering safety.

What, Exactly, Is a Degree Mill?

It is generally advisable to define the “beast” before going out to attempt to slay it. In the case of degree mills, this turns out to be an elusive task.

Let’s begin with the most basic words: degree and diploma.

A degree is the title one earns from a legitimate school or simply buys from a fake one: Bachelor of Arts, Master of Science, Master of Business Administration, Doctor of Philosophy, Juris Doctor (law), Doctor of Medicine, and scores of other titles.

A diploma is the certificate–the piece of paper or parchment–that signifies that a degree has been awarded.

Schools award degrees. And then they present the graduate with a diploma, which is, in effect, an announcement, a proclamation of the degree that has been awarded.

Degree mills issue diplomas. Diploma mills sell degrees. We can live with either word, but we have selected “degree mill” as our term of choice since it refers to the entity awarding the degree and not just to the decorative announcement framed and hung on the wall.

Different people define these words differently, depending on their intention. There is far from unanimous agreement on just what a degree mill is.

Almost no one would deny that a “university” operating from a mailbox service that grants the PhD in three days is a degree mill. But what about an institution that operates legally in a state with minimal regulation and requires three months and a thirty-page paper in order to earn its PhD? What about one that requires six months and sixty pages? How about twelve months and one hundred twenty pages? One person’s degree mill may be another’s innovative new-style university. Clearly more definition is needed than just time and work required.

Until now, only three books have been devoted entirely or largely to degree mills. Here’s how each of them define the term.

In 1963, Robert Reid wrote that “degree mills are those institutions that call themselves colleges or universities which confer ‘quick-way,’ usually mail-order degrees on payment of a fee. These institutions turn out . . . degrees without necessarily requiring the labor, thought, and attention usually expected of those who earn such degrees.”

In 1986, David W. Stewart and Henry A. Spille wrote, “Basically a diploma mill is a person or an organization selling degrees or awarding degrees without an appropriate academic base and without requiring a sufficient degree of postsecondary-level academic achievement.”

In 1990, Steve Levicoff, realistically acknowledging that no single definition can work in every situation, offered a list of sixty-two characteristics sometimes exhibited by degree mills, and he suggested that each reader would have to decide how many of these characteristics it would require before calling a school a degree mill.

In Allen Ezell’s presentations to academic and business groups, he often uses this definition adapted from several publications of the US Office of Education: “Degree mills are organizations that award degrees without requiring [their] students to meet educational standards for such degrees. They receive fees from their so-called students on the basis of fraudulent misrepresentation and/or make it possible for the recipients of its degrees to perpetrate a fraud on the public.”

It would be wonderful to have an infallible and undisputed test of what is a mill and what isn’t, but clearly there is no perfect definition that works for every person in every case. We offer our list of ninety-two things that schools do to fool people. If a school has eighty or ninety of these characteristics, almost no one would deny it is a mill. But what about sixty-three? Or forty-two? Or seventeen? Some would say yes and some would say no or maybe. The important thing is to be clear about why you say something is, or is not, or probably is. In general, it seems to us, identification as a degree mill comes down to consideration of these five crucial issues:

a. degree-granting authority,
b. credit for prior learning and experience,
c. amount of new work required,
d. quality of new work required,
e. who makes the decisions.

Let’s look at each of these issues in a bit of detail.

a. Under what authority are the degrees granted? Who has given the school permission to grant degrees? How have they made that decision?

Authority to award degrees needs to come from an independent entity, almost always a government agency. Some mills claim to give themselves the authority through their corporate charter, but no legitimate school does this.

We are talking about well over three hundred government agencies, and that means more than three hundred different policies and procedures. There are the 192 members of the United Nations, a few dozen countries that haven’t joined the UN, and dozens of territories, colonies, and protectorates. There are countries where some or all of the school decisions are made one step down from the national government: the fifty US states, of course, as well as the Canadian provinces and territories, the Swiss cantons, and others.

Some government agencies have a comprehensive and responsible method for determining who can grant degrees; others are little more than rubber stamps or have a simple and trivial process. And a great many are somewhere in between, thus subject to various interpretations, depending on who is doing the interpreting and for what purpose.

b. How much credit is given for prior learning, and how is that decision made?

It is an academically valid and well-accepted practice to give credit for learning experiences that took place prior to enrollment. A typical example is skill in a second language. If an American student takes four years of French in college, she will earn about twenty-four semester units and achieve a certain level of competency in the language. But what if she reached exactly the same level of competency on her own, whether through taking a Rosetta Stone course, living in that country, or learning from her grandmother? Many schools will award credit, although not necessarily those twenty-four units, once the competency has been demonstrated on a meaningful written and/or oral examination.

Credit is responsibly given for a wide range of prior learning, ranging from an Army map-reading course, to an IBM in-house training program, to earning a multiengine pilot’s license, to extensive independent study in Buddhist philosophy, to achieving a high score on the Graduate Record Examination in math.

While each school makes its own decision on how much credit to give, many rely on recommendations made by the American Council on Education’s (ACE) College Credit Recommendation Service. ACE evaluates thousands of learning experiences and publishes its recommendations on how much credit to give for each experience in several large volumes each year.

While there can be a considerable range in the amount of credit given for the same experience, the bad and fake schools regularly abuse this process by making outrageous credit awards. For instance, a good score on the ninety-minute College Level Evaluation Program (CLEP) test in history is worth one or two semester units at many schools and as much as five or six at a few. But degree mills have been known to give forty or fifty semester units, or even the entire bachelor’s (typically 120 units), master’s, or doctorate degree, for one CLEP test.

Again, we have a continuum, with the least-generous legitimate school at one end and the degree mills at the other. If the amount of credit awarded for a Navy music course ranges from three units at School A to one hundred twenty units at School Z, where does one draw the line between “good school” and “bad school” and perhaps another line between “bad school” and “degree mill”? And, most significantly, who draws that line?

c. How much new work is required to earn the degree?

While there are three regionally accredited US schools that will consider awarding their bachelor’s degree totally based on prior learning (if there is a great deal of it), the vast majority of schools require at least one year of new work, no matter what the student has done before.

At the master’s and doctoral level, giving credit for prior learning is minimal and rare. We know of no school with recognized accreditation that will award its master’s degree for anything less than one academic year (eight or nine months) of new work. The doctorate typically requires at least two years of new work, but usually three to five.

It is a common approach for degree mills to look at an applicant’s CV or resume and say, “Ah, yes, you’ve been selling life insurance for three years. That is the equivalent of an MBA,” or “We have determined that your five years of teaching Sunday school can earn you a Doctor of Divinity degree.”

Once again we have a continuum. At one end are the schools that require a great deal of new work after enrollment, and at the other end are the degree mills that offer any degree, including the master’s or doctorate, entirely or almost entirely based on the resume.

Is a three-page paper and one short open-book quiz sufficient for a master’s degree? A thirty-page paper and a one-hour unproctored exam? Ten thirty-page papers and five two-hour proctored exams? Where does one draw the line, and, again significantly, who draws it?

d. How does one judge the quality of the work done?

Even more complicated than evaluating the quantity of work done to earn any given degree is the quality of that work. A brilliant thirty-page thesis might be considered more worthy of a master’s degree than an ordinary hundred-page one or a poorly done three-hundred-page one.

Once again we have a continuum from A to F (or 4.0 to 0.0) grades, and we have the complicated issue of who makes those grading decisions and on what basis.

The quality of work done has been used in courtroom trials and other public situations to help prove that a given school is a degree mill. A high school teacher with a dubious PhD sued his school district, which had refused to pay him at the doctoral scale as the union contract required. The district had acquired a copy of this man’s seventeen-page doctoral “dissertation” directly from his alma mater, an unaccredited California university. The arbitration committee was clearly not impressed with this work, which the committee said was nothing more than a book report, and denied the claim.

That situation turned out well. But what if the three arbitrators had “voted” two to one? What if the lawyer for the defendant had found three professors who said that the work was adequate? What if the degree holder had hired an academic writing service (and there are plenty of them) to write a good dissertation for him, after his degree was challenged?

e. Who makes these decisions? How do they do so?

Gatekeepers and decision makers must decide where to draw all these crucial lines: how much credit for life experience, how much work to earn a degree, and what quality of work. Whenever possible, they will make use of external examiners: scholars from other schools and agencies, who will review the processes and determine that they are valid and equivalent to what their own institutions do.

All of this means that there is no short, simple, universally accepted definition of a degree mill. The complexity of the current educational situation precludes that.

Our Definition of “Degree Mill”

A degree mill is an entity in which

• degree-granting authority does not come from a generally accepted government agency,
• procedures for granting credit for prior learning, and for determining the amount and quality of work done to earn the degree, do not meet generally accepted standards, and
• those who make the decisions on credit, and on quantity and quality of work, do not have the credentials, experience, or training typically associated with people performing these tasks.

The Department of Education’s Definition of “Degree Mill”

The Higher Education Reauthorization Act of 2008 introduced the concept of “diploma mills” into federal law for the first time. It’s not a wonderful law, and it was watered down dramatically between introduction and passage, but at least it is a start.

In its original form, House Resolution 773 of 2007, this was the definition:

The term “diploma mill” means any entity that–
(A) lacks valid accreditation by an agency recognized by a Federal agency, a State government, or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation as a valid accrediting agency of institutions of higher education; and
(B) offers degrees, diplomas, or certifications, for a fee, that may be used to represent to the general public that the individual possessing such a degree, diploma, or certification has completed a program of education or training beyond secondary education, but little or no education or course work is required to obtain such a degree, diploma, or certification.

In the final version (the actual law), this is how it reads:

Diploma Mill:
The term “diploma mill” means an entity that–

(A) (i) offers, for a fee, degrees, diplomas, or certificates, that may be used to represent to the general public that the individual possessing such a degree, diploma, or certificate has completed a program of postsecondary education or training; and
(ii) requires such individual to complete little or no education or coursework to obtain such degree, diploma, or certificate; and

(B) lacks accreditation by an accrediting agency or association that is recognized as an accrediting agency or association of institutions of higher education (as such term is defined in section 102) by–
(i) the Secretary pursuant to subpart 2 of part H of title IV; or
(ii) a Federal agency, State government, or other organization or association that recognizes accrediting agencies or associations.

The big potential problem here is that phrase “or other organization or association.” These are not defined, as they were in the original wording of the bill, and that leaves the door wide open for fraudulent organizations, in the United States or elsewhere, that are set up to recognize fake accrediting agencies.

And the second big problem is that nothing is said about fake or bad schools outside the United States: those that are owned and run from the United States but use addresses in other countries, and those that are non-US-owned but sell their degrees to people in the United States.

The content of this book has been shaped by these definitions of “degree mill” or “diploma mill,” the attendant problems with the definitions, and by these three additional factors:

1. The continuum concept. While we have our own clear ideas on where to draw lines on the continuum that runs from “degree mill” to “legitimate school without recognized accreditation,” it is equally clear that many others have their clear ideas, and they are different from ours. A school whose degree can qualify you to take the bar or a state licensing exam in California can get you arrested on a criminal charge in Oregon. Every decision maker and gatekeeper draws his or her line in a different place.

2. Our litigious society. In this great democracy of ours, anyone can sue anyone else, and except in the rarest instances of wildly frivolous actions, the courts accept these suits. In the mid-1990s, LaSalle University (Louisiana) sued John Bear for a seven-figure amount because he had identified the institution as a degree mill. The following year, the proprietor of LaSalle was indicted on eighteen counts of mail fraud, tax fraud, and other charges; pleaded guilty; and was sent to a federal prison. But before this happened, John Bear had to spend thousands of dollars to respond (successfully) to this action that he believed to be both frivolous and vengeful.

In the late 1970s, Allen Ezell, John Bear, and a whole bunch of others (including CBS, the FBI, and some state attorneys general) were sued for $500 million by an already-imprisoned degree-mill operator, claiming libel, slander, and a conspiracy to put him out of business. We were content to let CBS and the others speak for us, but a lot of attorney time was booked before the courts eventually threw that one out.

And a few years ago, the Canadian publisher of John Bear’s book on online degrees was sued by an unrecognized Canadian school unhappy because it wasn’t listed in the book. Eventually, again after time and expense, the Canadian court declined to accept the case.

But we also want to point out, in passing, that things might have been different if media peril insurance (“libel insurance”) were available and affordable, and/or if the US courts were (in this respect) more like those in some Commonwealth countries. When our colleague George Brown, an Australian, was sued in Australia by a “school” allegedly in England that he had called a degree mill, the plaintiff was required by the Australian court to put up a multi-thousand-dollar bond. When the “school” did not press the suit, presumably because it would have meant revealing the names of the owners and its location, the court canceled the suit and gave the bond money to Dr. Brown.

3. The fact that information and opinions on degree mills are readily available. Anyone who needs to decide whether a given school is a degree mill (based, of course, on where he or she decides to draw the line on that continuum) will find plenty of information available in places ranging from government sites (such as the ones run by the states of Michigan, Oregon, and others, which identify hundreds of illegal schools by name) to news forums, such as and, where responsible people call many institutions degree mills (often we agree with them, but choose not to use those words) to companies in the business of checking academic credentials and issuing opinions on the legality and legitimacy of schools.

We provide the official long list of schools whose degrees cannot be used in the states of Michigan and Oregon, the two most thorough and up-to-date such lists.

Add to these the recognition of the speed with which situations change as the Internet and other advanced technologies make it increasingly easy for degree mills to launch, move, change their names, and cover their tracks, and you can see why this is not a reference book with an annotated list of several thousand school names. It is, rather, a consumer awareness work. With the information in this book, any intelligent reader can, at the very least, recognize the red flags that signal a less-than-legitimate enterprise and can develop sufficiently sensitive degree-mill “radar” to know when questions need to be asked and of whom to ask them.

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Degree Mills: The Billion-Dollar Industry That Has Sold Over a Million Fake Diplomasby FBI Agent Allen Ezell (Retired) and John Bear, Ph.D., published by Promethus Books, 2012.

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