RISKY CREDENTIALS

In Features /

By Chelsea Miya

It must have looked just like any other doctor’s office. Laurence Perry wore a professional white lab coat. The examining room shelves were stocked with medical supplies. And hanging on his walls were several official-looking degrees.

But what eight-year-old Helena Rose Kolitwenzew and her mother didn’t know was that the North Carolina doctor’s credentials were a lie. Perry never went to medical school. He purchased the fake degrees from diploma mills, including one in Toronto, using them to set up clinics and practice medicine for several years before meeting the Kolitwenzews.

Without any certified medical experience, Perry insisted Helena stop taking insulin, explaining that her Type I juvenile diabetes was in fact a rare viral infection.

Days after following his instructions, her mother Marion called Perry’s office in a panic. Helena was vomiting. Her body was going into diabetic shock.

“[He said] it was a window of opportunity, and if we didn’t take it now, she would never be able to overcome it… she would be on dialysis in three months,” Marion testified in court. “He assured me that he knew what he was doing, that he had done this hundreds of times and that I would have my little girl back without insulin.”

Helena died two days later on Oct. 21, 1999. Perry was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and practising medicine without a license and sentenced to 12 to 15 months in prison.

There are millions of fake degrees circulating in North America. Thanks to the Internet, counterfeit degree agencies have exploded. For as low as $150, websites like diplomamakers.com offer “high quality”, “novelty” replicas from any school.

Still, legislators, educators, law enforcers and employers alike refuse to take the threat seriously.

And while schools like the University of Toronto are fighting back with extra security measures, Ryerson continues to lag behind.

“Oh yeah, this is real simple.” Detective Constable Jim Makris of the Toronto Police Fraud Squad holds up a Ryerson University degree issued last year. He scratches the blue and yellow emblem at the top of the certificate with his thumb and nods. “It’s flat. Real flat. There’s no real security features.”

Recently, U of T began issuing their degrees with fraud-deterring holograms. Not only that, you can now check the authenticity of a degree online. All you need is the student’s name and either their date of birth, social insurance number or student number.

At Ryerson, potential employers can’t access any information about a student or grads’ credentials without receiving their permission in the form of a signed waiver.

And with its cheap design, anyone can forge a Ryerson degree. All you need is a colour printer, a few extra bucks and a little bit of creativity.

If you have a copy of the original, it’s easy to match the fonts in Photoshop. For the emblem and Signature, a photo taken straight on will produce a much higher quality image than a scanner. Then it’s just a matter of editing out the background in Photoshop.

The seal’s the tricky part. Only a few people in the registrar’s department have access. Each one is hand applied. For $400 to $1000 a professional can make an exact replica using a laser scan of the original document. But there’s always the danger the university could be one of their clients. A cheap, risk-free alternative is to submit the logo artwork to an internet stamp and seal company like customembossers.com, who will do the job for less than $100.

Once the corner’s been stamped and the certificate safely sealed away behind a brand new, professional looking frame, held up next to the original, it’s impossible to tell the difference.

Total time, including the 24 hours it takes to ship the seal, is just a tiny fraction of the more than 35,000 hours an undergraduate will spend in school. Total cost, including the paper and framing job, is less than $150. If you’re paying $5,644 a year in tuition over four years, that’s 0.006 per cent or 1/150 the cost of a university education.

“It isn’t really worth the paper it’s printed on,” said Ken Scullion, in charge of enrolment services and student records at the Ryerson registrar’s office. “It’s a showpiece document. Of and by itself, it confirms very little. Except that it looks very nice and so on and so forth.”

Instead of the degree, Ryerson’s registrar relies on transcripts as proof of graduation.

But many of the detailed features of classified Ryerson documents are available to the public on the Ryerson website, from high quality downloadable logos to the font type and even the exact colours, such as Blue Pantone 294.

The only difficulty would be tracking down the security paper, issued to a limited number of authorized buyers. With its ultraviolet fibres and invisible watermark pattern, it’s highly difficult to replicate or tamper with.

But Scullion admits that many human resources departments never ask for the transcripts.

“Yeah, there’s a problem there,” said Scullion, saying that registrars have tried to tell employers to be more careful, but they end up being too busy to double check.

“You walk in and you do very well in an interview. Is there any reason for them to believe that that B-Com that you said you have… isn’t true? And then to top it off you give them a lovely photocopy of what appears to be a very legitimate document.”

Often, it takes an experienced human resources official to detect a fake. And unless there are serious suspicions, the process of double-checking with the university gets bypassed.

“You’re talking anywhere from 48 to 72 hours of overhead into a process that’s already,” Scullion snaps his fingers, “Let’s move it! Move it! Move it! And so corners get cut, things get accelerated.”

The Toronto Fraud Squad is buried under case files. Stacked on the floor, piled on desks. Boxes and boxes and boxes of them.

“We get 20 to 30 new ones every day,” said Makris. “About 1,600 a year.”

But they’ve only had two complaints about individuals selling counterfeit degrees in the past four years. Both involved York and U of T. One was handed over to university security. The other went to the Ministry of Education.

When contacted, the Ministry had no idea what happened to the case in question. A representative from the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities would only say, “it would be unfortunate if this type of activity was happening in Ontario.”

Said Makris, “We just don’t see it as a big problem.” Although he agreed it would be relatively easy to buy a fake degree in Toronto.

Canada has no specific laws to deal with degree forgery. The worst that can happen is you would lose your job.

“They’re not qualified,” said Makris. “But what if I’m a teacher who’s bought a fake degree, and up until then you’ve been quite happy with my teaching? In fraud, we like to see a victim. Someone who’s lost something tangible. If you try to go after him some smart defence lawyer’ going to say, I worked for you for five years. I am qualified.”

Even if you’re caught red-handed selling forged degrees, if you have no prior convictions, said Makris, you probably won’t even get jail time.

Legislators’ slap-on-the-wrist attitude towards degree fraud let it get out of control, said degree mill expert and FBI consultant John Bear.

Bear testified as an expert witness at Laurence Perry’s trial in 2002.

“The hardest part is persuading people that there is a real problem here,” said Bear. “When that little girl died it only got a three-inch story in the local paper.”

The man responsible for her death bought his fake degrees from Dr. L. Mitchell Wineberg, who ran several diploma mills in both Toronto and Louisiana out of a single hotel room in New York. The evidence was clear that he had sold thousands of medical degrees by the time the FBI caught up with him, says Bear. But because Wineberg kept no records of the transactions, he was never convicted.

During his career, Bear uncovered two-star generals from the Pentagon who bought fake Master’s, and found people with fake PhDs working on the space program at NASA.

But degree fraud has been going on since the 1400s, when unauthorized bakers would forge baker guild stamps on the underside of their bread to avoid heavy fines.

In the 1920s, headlines like “Diploma Mill Devastates Country” covered the front pages. Every 20 years or so, it’s back in the spotlight, and every time there is new resolve to do something about it.

But today, more diploma mills and phony degree agencies have been launched in the past 10 years than the previous 50, and Ryerson doesn’t have any plans to increase security.

“[Fake Ryerson degrees] could certainly do a lot of harm, especially if they were working with young kids or toddlers,” said Dr. Rachel Langford, chair of the Early Childhood Education department.

“It would also jeopardize the integrity of the degree itself for the program.”

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