Fraud U: Toppling a Bogus-Diploma Empire
by David Wolman
It started with spam. On a quiet August day in 2002, a physics professor named George Gollin was working in his office at the University of Illinois when an ad popped up on his computer screen. The product on offer: college degrees.
In a nearby computer lab, the ads leaped from one monitor to another, seeming to spread like a contagion. The spam barrage was raging across the Urbana-Champaign campus. “They were sending bazillions of them, for weeks,” Gollin recalls. “It was like a telemarketer calling over and over.” He decided to dial the phone number listed in the ad to find out who was behind the electronic assault.
No one answered, so Gollin left a polite message. A few days later he received a call from a man, speaking with what sounded like an Eastern European accent, who delivered a pitch for various degree options from Parkwood University. Gollin, who is 56 and has a BA from Harvard and a PhD from Princeton, listened in amazement as the man cheerfully explained how, for about $4,400, he could supply a PhD in systems engineering.
Or if that wasn”™t to Gollin”™s liking, he could offer a doctorate in Germanic languages. Gollin chuckled and shook his head. It was all rather amusing, the academic equivalent of a bad toupee “” anyone who looked closely could see that it was a fake.
Still, Gollin”™s curiosity was piqued, so he decided to look up Parkwood University online. At first glance, the Web site resembled that of any liberal arts college, complete with links for information on student services, academics, and faculty. But with some Googling, Gollin discovered that the course catalog for Parkwood had been copied wholesale from the University of Central Florida”™s Web site. He also found that the greeting from Parkwood”™s supposed president appeared on the sites of five other schools, all of them apparent shams.
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