Cracking Down On Diploma Mills

books and diploma
If there's one thing University of Illinois physics professor George Gollin values as much as his students, it's the degrees that made him a professor, reports CBS News Correspondent Lee Cowan.

So when he found out prestigious degrees like his were for sale on the Internet, he decided to investigate.

"I got pissed off, basically," says Gollin. "There were people committing fraud who were putting at risk innocent victims."

His research uncovered hundreds of sham universities – diploma mills – offering fake degrees in everything from oncology to emergency surgery.

There are no lectures, no staff, no faculty, yet some people will pass off these phony documents as legitimate degrees.

Take London's Strassford University. Its Web site claims this impressive looking institution was founded during the reign of Queen Victoria. But an attempt to find those ivy-covered halls of learning turned up no grand building, no ivy, not even a sign.

"It may have a beautiful brochure, it may have a picture of a gorgeous building on it, but it's not theirs," says former FBI investigator Allen Ezell.

Fake degrees are nothing new to Ezell. What is new is the level of sophistication.

"They offer you lifetime verification, lifetime backup to your employer if you're going for a job interview," Ezell says.

That means buyers not only get a fake diploma, they get a bogus transcript with grades for courses never taken – and even letters of recommendation.

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Me., is a not-too-grateful graduate. During her investigation, she applied for two masters – one in medical technology, the other in biology.

And what does she know about medical technology and biology? "Zero, nothing," Collins says. "In fact I never took a college level biology course in my life."

But she really got mad when she discovered that a woman named Laura Callahan boasted a doctorate in computer information systems from one of the phantom universities.

And Callahan landed a job at the Department of Homeland Security.

"It raises questions, particularly if the individual has a security clearance," says Collins. "That's very troubling to me."

Troubling also, Collins says, because many of these fake degrees can also be used to get student visas – just like two of the Sept. 11 hijackers used to get into the country in the first place.

All reasons, says Gollin, to double-check fact against fiction and make sure that virtual degree is indeed from a virtuous institution.