By Abdillahi Hussein
It all started with Facebook erroneous comment on a basic fundamental economics concept by someone claiming to hold “doctoral” degree in the Economics. Oddly, that person was using a copy of his “Ph.D. degree in Economics” as banner in his Facebook page. Because I have an undergraduate degree in Economics, the two—basic misunderstanding of Economics and a Ph.D. degree in Economics—did not add up. Moreover, I have never seen anyone who would use a copy of his degree as banner in his Facebook page. This curiosity led me to do some digging. First, I searched the name of the institutions, the Pebble Hills University, where the “Ph.D.” holder claimed to graduate from. After a few searched on Google, the picture became clearer to me. The “Ph.D.” holder received his fake degree from a Diploma Mill.
Diploma Mill is basically an organization that offers fake university degrees for a fee. This is particularly harmful to students of poor countries because of lack of oversight by government agencies. According to Prof. George Gollin of the University of Illinois, “The operators of bogus schools do genuine harm to society. Some of them sell fake engineering and medical degrees. The clients of diploma mills will, in turn, endanger their own (unwitting) patients, customers and advisees.”
“Pebble Hills University” leads the way in Diploma Mills fraud. Based on extensive research conducted by Verifile, a U.K. based background screening agency, this so-called university has merely a website and a mailing address to lure prospective students and to rip them off. The report concluded: “A group of diploma mills including Pebble Hills University claimed to be located in Seborga and to be recognized by the Principality’s Department of Education. In fact, Seborga is administered by the Italian government and the ‘Principality’ only has symbolic value. After a police investigation, the address used by Pebble Hills and 10 other institutions was found to be a room used as a cellar.”
Moreover, the State of Texas in the United States has put Pebble Hills on the list of fake institutions whose degrees are illegal to use in its jurisdiction.
It is alarming to know that this fake university, Pebble Hills, has already signed agreements with East Africa University, and Indian Ocean University in Bosaso and Mogadishu, respectively, to offer long distance MBA and PhD programs. These Somalia-based universities proudly advertise on their websites the relationship they have with “Pebble Hills University,” the fake university that sells bogus degrees online, in order to boost their international standing and entice prospective students. They have, at best, failed to do due diligence to verify the credentials of this so-called university or, at worse, deliberately co-opted with foreign criminal syndicates to defraud vulnerable Somali students.
As far as I can tell, students who have enrolled in these fake universities are into two folds. The first group is those who lack sophistication to differentiate fake university from a genuine one. They are indeed so naïve but sincerely believe they are getting real degrees. The second group is those whose desire to receive university degree and the recognition that comes with it blinds them from what is obvious. The latter group somehow knows the reality but deliberately deceive the prospective employers and the public. By claiming to hold advanced degrees such us Ph.Ds, such characters deceive companies and educational institutions they work for as consultants and teachers/researchers, respectively.
For instance, there is one such person who claims to hold Ph.D. in Islamic Economics. After I confronted with him the irrefutable information indicating the university he claims to hold the degree from is indeed fake, he changed stories and insisted his degree is genuine. This is particularly interesting because the guy considers himself an Islamic scholar. He even delivers Friday sermons in mosques. Although it is beyond the scope of this article, I have routinely seen so-called religious scholars who are good at explaining Islamic obligatory duties such prayers and fasting but are so ignore about macamalat, the conduct of dealing with other people. This is particularly so because they lack formal education and, therefore, unaware of the implications of their conducts.
What complicates the issue more is the fact that fake universities set up illegitimate accreditation entities that vouch for them. This makes it very difficult for ordinary person to differentiate a genuine accreditation agency from a fake one. Furthermore, there is brokerage office called AIMS which is a front for these fake universities. After inquired their services, below is how AIMS explains itself:
“Academy for International Modern Studies (AIMS) is a UK based institution, however we are NOT a degree granting institution. The Certificates and Diplomas are issued by AIMS, and the MBA and PhD degrees are issued by other degree granting institution. AIMS does the academic and evaluation part, and once it is done, the degrees are requested from the partner university.”
This is beyond comprehension. How can “AIMS” do evaluation without having any accreditation? Surprisingly, one of the universities AIMS orders degrees from is Pebble Hills University. After I confronted with them the report that shows Pebble Hills is a fake university, the office coordinator of AIMS told me in writing that they now ordering degrees from University of America. This too is a fake university. It claims to have accreditation from California’s Bureau of Private Postsecondary Education. However, after searching the Bureau’s website, I found no such accreditation for “University of America.”
The fake universities such us Pebble Hills and University of America as well as their promoters such us AIMS make a lot of money through this illegitimate operations. It costs an average $3,500 (three thousand five hundred U.S. Dollars) for someone to receive bachelor’s degree from them. The postgraduate degrees such us Masters and Ph.D. degrees costs around $7,000 (Seven thousand U.S. Dollars).
I felt, therefore, moral obligation to share my findings with the public, especially Somali students, who are so vulnerable to such schemes because of their naïveté as well as lack of oversight capacity by Somali authorities. Prospective employers such as companies and educational institutions who employ those who receive fake degrees from such universities should also be wise enough to do due diligence before they hire consultants and teachers/researchers, respectively.
According to the research conducted by Verifile, below are some guidelines of spotting Diploma Mills:
• You can get a diploma based on passing an online equivalency test or based entirely on life experience.
• You can get a diploma in a very short space of time
• The same equivalency test can be taken as many times as you want.
• If you get the answers wrong, they will tell you the correct ones before you retake the test.
• Contact details are limited to an email address or a toll free number.
• The institution is vague about its location.
• The only address, if any, is a mailbox.
• Sample certificates, transcripts or verification letters are available to view on the Web site.
• It makes over-complicated or misleading claims about accreditation or recognition.
• It claims to be accredited by an unfindable accreditor.
• It shares an IP or physical address with the entity it claims to be accredited by.
• The website is poorly designed, has poor spelling and grammar or it plagiarizes copy from other institutions.
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