Priceonomics

“We choose honesty over deception.”

-- PhonyDiploma.com website

With a four-year college degree generally averaging around $80,000, a diploma is the most expensive piece of paper most people ever earn. Though it’s just a flimsy sliver of dead tree embossed with a stamp and signed by the lords of higher education, it’s also a symbol of the hard work -- the blood, sweat, and tears -- that went into being admitted. Unless, of course, you purchase your certificate from one of the dozens of websites offering fake diplomas for as little as $400.

As one might expect, the business of fake diplomas is shrouded in hazy legality. Yet, like most shady industries, it flourishes: the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, which regulates the legitimacy of degrees, estimates that 100,000 fake degrees and diplomas are sold every year.

The titan of these companies is the appropriately-named PhonyDiploma.com, which also owns about a dozen other similar domain names. Naturally, we had to figure out what the hell they’re up to.

A screen-cap of PhonyDiploma's original website in 2002

PhonyDiploma, in all of its questionable glory, is what fraud experts call a diploma mill: it is a company which unabashedly churns out a wide variety of diplomas -- high school, college, graduate school, international certifications -- for attractively (and deceptively) low prices. These diplomas are solely pieces of paper: a customer does not get an actual degree with his purchase.

The diploma mill’s closely-related twin, the degree mill, typically offers diplomas too, but these come with an actual degree from a false institution that is “accredited” from equally-shady fake accreditation company. This generally requires a lot more work, is more expensive for the purchaser (around $1,000 per degree), and is much more risky for the business owner. Last year, the FBI busted busted one such operation; the “entrepreneur” behind the scheme, a 48-year-old Connecticut man, had sold $5 million worth in fake degrees from a series of fake schools he’d set up  -- Redding University, Glendale University, Suffield University, Greenwood University and Bryson University -- all of which were “accredited” by a totally made-up body. He faces 20 years in prison.

PhonyDiploma.com, however, does not face these repercussions. According to their website, what they do is “perfectly legal:”

“There is nothing illegal about using a fake diploma for novelty purposes. 

We NEVER use copy written seals or emblems owned by actual schools -- even though our design may look similar. We NEVER forge the original administrator name -- we use a selection of in-house names that look like real signatures. We NEVER make fake diplomas representing nursing, medical, mental-health, dental, legal, law enforcement, aviation, military or government certification or public safety professions. We NEVER make fake diplomas that might be used to circumvent the security of our country.”

“We are not a diploma mill,” adamantly states the company, before continuing to describe itself as the textbook definition of a diploma mill:

“We make fake diplomas that look real, offer many college diplomas for sale, have 1000's of fake online degrees as well as fake online schools and fake transcripts online. All of our novelty degrees, college diplomas and transcripts, international college diplomas, fake certificates and fake transcripts can be ordered right on our fresh and secure website. For the most authentic and reliable college diplomas online, you have come to the right place. We have over 400,000 real diploma designs that we have collected over the past 9 years so you are guaranteed to get exactly what you want!”

While PhonyDiploma says their products should only be used for “novelty purposes,” their marketing tells us otherwise.

They tout their diplomas as “top of the line.” They use “the same paper used by actual schools,” include official watermarks and security fibers, and even use “real raised seals” in the fashion of whichever school you desire. “The other guys give you a flat fused seal with fake building and a couple of raised lines on it,” writes the company. “Ours are completely raised off of the paper just like real schools do it!”

Furthermore, the diplomas they offer make no mention of the fact that they are fake, as made explicitly clear by the company:

You can easily procure an MBA diploma, or a PhD diploma in any one of 22 fields, from computer science to psychology. Also available: no less than 120 Bachelor’s and Master’s diplomas, including one in “Philosophy & Ethics,” in the event that you’re feeling especially moral while browsing PhonyDiploma.com. Aside from a specific list of some 120 institutions who have explicitly asked PhonyDiploma not to reproduce their diplomas, any high school or college is fair game.

“Your diploma is an excellent way to display your pride of accomplishment,” PhonyDiploma writes, as if oblivious to the fact that purchasing one of its diplomas requires neither pride nor any accomplishment. 

In addition to diplomas, PhonyDiploma offers “novelty” transcripts. “Notice how realistic our fake transcripts are,” boasts the website. “You can even select your own GPA.” What novelty application could one possibly have for a transcript, you ask? PhonyDiploma clears that up:

“Sometimes, people like to display their transcript in an office or keep a copy on file. Fake transcripts can be obtained easily, and look as authentic as the originals. High school and college transcripts are both valuable tools in getting people ahead in life. 

Getting an original transcript can often be a lengthy process, as there is a waiting period and usually a surcharge to obtain it. You must be able to prove positive identification, and also have been an actual alumni or current student of that particular school...so by obtaining a fake transcript, you can have a nice looking copy to use for display or other purposes.”

Just in case any of its customers forgot how upstanding of a company it is, PhonyDiploma stoically defends its ethics: “Phonydiploma.com is a hard working company and we treat our customers very fairly, and honestly...we choose honest over deception.” Then, it continues on, listing a “multitude of reasons” one should purchase a phony diploma and/or transcript:

To boost your self-esteem
To wow your friends and family
To give as a gift to loved ones and friends or colleagues
To show off at a reunion (family, school or otherwise)
To add to your social media profile

Needless to say, these reasons got us pretty pumped up. So, we attempted to purchase one:

The following day, all of our hard work, dedication, and focus was rewarded. With a sense of great personal satisfaction, we received our acceptance letter:

Not bad, considering four years of Harvard tuition typically runs about $160,000. (Who needs classes, learning, and a verified degree from one of the world’s best schools, when we can get the same piece of paper in a few days’ time, for $650?)

Though they are adamant that their operation is legal, PhonyDiploma goes to great lengths to ensure they stay within the law.

To avoid serious legal repercussions, PhonyDiploma.com refuses to print some types of diplomas. “We won't produce fake diplomas with any level with MD, JD, LLB, DDS or any other degree from a law, medical, nursing or a degree in Biotechnology,” writes the company. “We won't print anything that might suggest someone could prescribe drugs or ‘treat’ another person.” Being the benevolent company they are, PhonyDiploma also denies customers any certificates “dealing with flying an aircraft or anything related to aeronautics, driving a train or bus, securing the public interest or anything military-related.” 

PhonyDiploma also includes a list of places it will not ship to, or produce diplomas for any schools within its borders. Listed beside Cuba, Nigeria, and North Korea, are two U.S. states: Connecticut, and Oregon. Both states have had major diploma mill operation busts (Oregon in 2005, and Connecticut in 2014), and as such, the states’ Boards of Education demanded that PhonyDiploma cease all sales to its residents.

***

The scan of consumer review sites tells us that PhonyDiploma also operates nearly a dozen other domain names:

Realisticdiplomas.com
Diplomacompany.com
Phoneydiploma
Replicadiploma 
Replicadiplomas
Realisticdiploma
PrincetonPartners.co.uk
KwickDegree.com
BudgetDiploma.com
SpoofPrint.com
FakeDegrees.org.uk

In addition to these sites, PhonyDiploma.com candidly operates a website called “FakeDiplomaReviewSite.org” on the side, which features a ranking of the Internet’s top fake diploma manufacturers. The review, complete with letter grades, reads like one of their own phony transcripts:

Though advertised as “impartial,” and linked to from PhonyDiploma.com as a “Honest Fake Diploma Review Site,” the list is topped off by two of the company’s own diploma sites. At this point, we can’t say we’re shocked.

PhonyDiploma and all of its sister domains are owned by the much more professional-sounding “Document Services, LLC,” a run-of-the-mill digital printing business which makes no mention of its fake diploma side-venture on its main website, and which looks very similar to the above review site:

The headers of both sites (separated by red dotted line)

A comb of the two sites’ HTML reveals that PhonyDiploma.com and documentservicesllc.com were both created using GoDaddy’s Website Builder v6.1.2, and are both hosted on GoDaddy’s shared servers. A Wayback search yields an 800-number for DocumentServices which leads to the same automated message service as PhonyDiploma. 

All of these websites are so chock full of heroic rhetoric -- “honesty,” “fair,” “NOT a scam” -- that it begins to take the opposite effect: one begins to question the company’s legitimacy. Who are these people?

***

Our only conversation with anyone in the company was brief and fleeting, and happened with a service rep named “Chris,” over a live chat. We posed as a skeptical, but interested, customer. “We’re a printing service. Not necessarily a diploma mill,” he assured us. “We print novelty documents.”

“So they don’t look real?” we asked.

“Looks and feels realistic,” he curtly replied. “We use actual parchment diploma paper and top quality printers. We use actual transcript security paper and provide a variety of stamps, seals and emblems.”

We posed our final question: “Will I be able to trick my boss with this?”

“We have no way to guarantee whether our product will meet your needs,” wrote Chris, just before signing off on us. “But, we hope you would agree that the potential value far outweighs any risk.”

This post was written by Zachary Crockett. Follow him on Twitter.

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Published Jan 27, 2015


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