CHARLOTTE, N.C. (FOX 46 CHARLOTTE) - Fake diplomas are causing real problems. Online companies are cranking out hundreds of thousands of real-looking fake diplomas and college transcripts designed to fool employers, and it's all legal.
Job-seekers are forced to compete against people with phony credentials, while customers, in some cases, are being tricked into hiring "professionals" who aren't qualified, a FOX 46 investigation found.
It's a billion dollar industry that isn't shy about its bogus business.
"We've been creating awesome looking fake diplomas since 2007," one commercial, for Buy A Fake Diploma, proudly proclaimed.
We found several websites promising "no books" and "no studying," just cash for credit.
FOX 46 wanted to see just how real these fake degrees look. One company, Diploma Makers, says it sells knock-off degrees from thousands of schools, including many from the Carolinas. We paid around $300 for expedited shipping of a forged nursing diploma and "official" watermarked course transcripts bearing the name and address of Catawba College, a private school in Salisbury, N.C.
Officials at Catawba College, which just graduated its first class of nursing students in May, had no comment when we told them companies are stealing their name to sell fake "official" transcripts and degrees.
"Catawba College is very disappointed to see the deliberate fabrication of Catawba College diplomas and transcripts," said Catawba College Dean of Students Jared Tice. "The manufacturing of these false documents diminishes the significant work done by our students to earn their Catawba degree...For our campus community, this is a serious matter, and we have sent this outfit a 'cease and desist' letter asking them to stop."
Officials at Gaston College are also stunned.
"Wow, it looks legit," said Dr. Allison Abernathy, the Dean of Health and Human Services at Gaston College, after viewing our counterfeit nursing credentials. "The courses look correct."
Dr. Abernathy says the consequences of a patient being treated by someone without training would be dire.
"Somebody would die," she said.
Before we finished our interview, Dr. Abernathy had already emailed colleagues at other colleges to warn them about our findings.
"I was not aware, so I want to make sure I do my due diligence to tell my partners what's happening and what's out there," she said. "It's sad. It's very disappointing."
FOX 46 reached out to Diploma Makers and we are getting results.
"This has lead us to question our own procedures," said Michelle, an office manager with Diploma Makers, who did not give a last name. "We have decided to no longer offer documents related to the medical field unless the individual can provide clear and proper documentation."
Even so, since nurses are licensed, the tricky transcript we ordered wouldn't get us very far.
"Definitely not," said Candace Moore, with the North Carolina Board of Nursing, who also viewed our phony nursing degree and transcript.
In North Carolina, employers are required to verify licenses with the Board of Nursing, which validates a student's graduation status directly with the college. For in-state students, paper transcripts are not accepted. Instead, program directors verify graduation status through a secured online system. For out-of-state students, transcripts are accepted only if sent directly from the college or an approved vendor, Moore said.
Still, Moore and other experts fear these type of phony credentials could be used to fool people in private home care settings.
"We definitely have rigorous systems in place," said Moore. "But, it's troubling to know there is a possibility, even in a very private setting, that someone could be performing healthcare services without an education."
Two weeks ago, Virginia authorities arrested a woman for posing as a psychologist. Sharonda Avery treated hundreds of children and adults over seven years, investigators said. Her only qualification, according to the Stafford Sheriff's Office: two doctorate degrees and a master's degree that were fake.
While some companies will counterfeit real college degrees, claiming they are for "novelty purposes," other so-called "diploma mills" just make up school names and go as far as creating fake verification systems to trick employers.
In April, a principal in Kansas resigned after her students discovered she had a paid-for "diploma mill" degree.
FOX 46 found a number of people locally and in the Carolinas who listed degrees from known diploma mills. Our investigation found phony credentials being used in fields like accounting, business, crisis intervention, leadership coaching and even a substance abuse mental health counselor.
Many hung up or declined to comment when we called.
Earlier this month, Jim Smith, the director of Morganton's Municipal Auditorium, was forced to resign after it was discovered he lied on his resume when he listed degrees from a diploma mill school.
Smith's bogus doctoral degree in theology, listed on his resume from "Cosmopolitan University," wasn't even necessary for the job, Morganton City Manager Sally Sandy said.
Sandy declined to comment further, saying the city is looking to move past Smith's hiring.
Efforts to reach Smith were unsuccessful. He does not have a listed phone number and did not respond to emails seeking comment.
For actual college graduates, who have sacrificed time and money to earn their degrees the hard way, it's an insult.
"This is crazy," said Elaine Yancey, a Gaston College nursing grad, who viewed our fake nursing degree and transcript. "I think it's good you have brought this to light. I had no idea anything like this was out there."
"It's eye-opening for sure," said Lindsay Clawson, another Gaston College nursing grad. "We have sacrificed so much."
Recent graduates, who have sacrificed and worked hard to earn their degrees, are now entering the workforce facing growing competition from job-seekers whose only qualification isn't worth the paper it's printed on.
Look Up College's Accreditation Status
As hard as it is to believe, this is all legal. The Department of Education confirms it has no jurisdiction over fake schools that don't receive taxpayer money.
"The federal Department of Education does not have jurisdiction over entities that are not accredited and do not receive federal money," said a Department of Education spokesperson. "Any student who has fallen victim to a diploma mill should report the entity to the BBB and law enforcement."
You can search to see if a college is accredited at the Department's Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs website by clicking here.
Verify Nursing License
In North Carolina, you can verify a nurse's license by going to the North Carolina Board of Nursing website by clicking here.
In South Carolina, you can verify a nurse's license by going to the South Carolina Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation by clicking here.
Spotting a Diploma Mill
Among the things to watch out for, according to the FTC, are:
- Getting a degree without doing any work (avoid websites that advertise "no studying" or "no exams).
- Avoid websites that sell degrees for "work or life experience" alone.
- Many diploma mills charge a flat fee for a degree. Legitimate colleges charge by credit, course or semester.
- Earning a degree takes time. If an ad promises a degree in a few days, weeks or even months it's probably a scam.
- Some diploma mills use aggressive ad sales tactics. Legitimate institutions won't advertise through spam, pop-ups or high-pressure telemarketing calls.
Catawba College Statement
"Catawba College is very disappointed to see the deliberate fabrication of Catawba College diplomas and transcripts. The manufacturing of these false documents diminishes the significant work done by our students to earn their Catawba degree. When a Catawba degree is conferred, the diploma represents not only the academic achievement of our students, but the wealth of experiences, opportunities, and challenges inside and outside the classroom they have faced and overcame. Our students' Catawba experience simply cannot be duplicated overnight. For our campus community, this is a serious matter and we have sent this outfit a 'cease and desist' letter asking them to stop." - Jared Tice, Catawba College Dean of Students
Diploma Makers' Response
The company FOX 46 ordered the nursing degree and transcripts from, DiplomaMakers.com, responded to our request for comment with the following email response, which is printed in full below:
"Yes, we are concerned and try to avoid such issues; in fact the Terms and Conditions that every customer accepts and personally agrees to prior to placing the order can be found here:
and this is the Terms & Conditions item specific to this particular order:
15. I the user testify to the fact that I am not accessing this material to commit any fraud or criminal activity and I will not use these items for purpose of higher education, business, employment, occupation, profession, immigration reasons, trade or public office. I also understand DiplomaMakers.com will cancel my order if I am suspected to be in violation of any of the aforementioned reasons. I understand that it is my sole responsibility to check both local and federal laws before ordering from this site. I will not mischievously misrepresent my education and I understand that by completing this order I waive any rights holding the site operator, its entity or any affiliated associations accountable for any actions brought upon myself.
As well, and I am sure you are already well aware of this, but I would refer you to the standard practices hospitals use to screen new employees:
FOX 46 responded listing concerns from experts that a phony medical credential could be used to fool people in private home care settings. The company replied with the following email response:
Every state has a way to check backgrounds, but as an investigative reporter I am sure you are probably aware of this as well. Nonetheless this has lead us to question our own procedures and we have decided to no longer offer documents related to the medical field unless the individual can provide clear and proper documentation. Thank you again for choosing Diploma Makers.
The issue of knock-off degrees is something many healthcare providers are unwilling to talk about.
FOX 46 wanted to talk with working nurses about what we found and about how hard their jobs are. Atrium Health and Novant Health both declined.
"We are going to pass on this opportunity," said Atrium spokeswoman Teri Porter.
"We are going to pass on participating," said Novant spokeswoman Robin Baltimore.
BrightStar Care, which provides home care nursing services, originally agreed to speak with us, but then backed out.
"Thank you for reaching out," said spokeswoman Robin LaConde. "However we are going to pass on the opportunity."
This article has been updated to include a new statement from Catawba College. After our report, the college sent a cease and desist letter to Diploma Makers.