It is illegal to present fake degree certificates and transcripts as genuine documents. Under the Fraud Act 2006, it can result in a prison sentence of up to ten years.
Although degree fraud is becoming more common and sophisticated, it doesn't take much for employers to protect themselves from its ill effects. We present Hedd's Magnificent Seven tips for identifying fake certificates and bogus websites.
1. Certificate design
Fraudsters often believe that an ornate, Gothic typeface denotes prestige and tradition, and many of the fake certificates we have encountered use this technique.
In the real university world, this sort of typographical representation became outdated at around the same time as single gender common rooms and rustication.
By and large, most contemporary fake certificates are modelled on their real-world counterparts. However, there are still many old school fake certificates in circulation, such as this piece of calligraphy from Canterbury University.
2. Certificate language
As well as a florid appearance, the Canterbury University degree certificate is weighed down by pompous and ponderous prose.
No university puts this sort of cod-medieval lingo on their degree certificates - if you come across it, be suspicious.
The use of Latin terminology on a degree certificate should also be a warning sign. Expressions such as 'cum laude' are popular with US universities, whereas UK higher education institutions (HEIs) use 'with honours'.
It has not been practice for UK providers to issue degree certificates in Latin for at least 10 years. Contemporary certificates are in English. Latin versions are occasionally issued as mementos, but are supplementary to the English version.
3. Certificate components
Just as universities take increasingly sophisticated security measures to protect the integrity of their documents, fraudsters play catch-up and develop their own versions of crests, seals and holograms.
If in doubt, check the insignia on the certificate with the university website. Always ask to see the original certificate, not a photocopy.
The only sure way of not being conned by a fake certificate, of course, is to check the authenticity of the certificate with the university that issued it.
4. University location
Fake university websites usually provide contact information, including a postal address. It's a feature that, if excluded, wouldn't go unnoticed.
Any doubts about the legitimacy of a dubious-looking university site can be allayed instantly by putting the postcode into StreetView.
This is what the Canterbury University postcode returned:
It certainly isn't the ivy-clad, mullion-windowed establishment the certificate promised. Some fake universities are in serviced offices, car parks and even on traffic roundabouts.
Before you even reach the StreetView stage, inconsistencies or insufficiencies in the address may give the game away. A PO Box or mailing house address, for example, is unlikely to be used by a real university.
Ascension Island is a popular domain choice for fake website providers. This is because the .ac suffix is as close as it's possible to get to ac.uk. Joined by the National Fraud Investigation Bureau, Hedd works with domain name registrars such as GoDaddy or 123 Reg to shut down such sites.
With the exception of private providers, such as BPP University, genuine UK degree-awarding bodies have .ac.uk domains which are carefully restricted. The fundamental rule is, if it doesn't look like a university website address, it probably isn't.
6. Order of words
Although in conversation people are likely to say, 'I went to Manchester University' or 'Manchester Uni', on paper it's The University of Manchester (the uppercase 'T' is the correct mode). Any degree certificate that says 'Manchester University' is a fake.
This is one of most common forms of misrepresentation that can easily be checked at Hedd.
7. University authentication
The UK has a large and diverse higher education sector and, even within the UK, recruiters don't necessarily know their Queen Marys from their Queen Margarets.
Mergers, name changes and rebranding have been the norm in the HE sector since the evolution of polytechnics into universities after 1992. For example, the University of North London merged with London Guildhall University (formerly the City of London Polytechnic) in 2002, to form London Metropolitan University.
Hedd's university authentication database provides a family tree for all degree-awarding bodies. For example, from the site: ‘Bell College of Technology was a UK government-recognised body that gave awards between 1972 and 2007. Its qualifications are verified by University of the West of Scotland.’
Many fake university operators provide their own pseudo-verification processes. The University of Wolverhamton (note the misspelling) scam provided a casebook example of this.
The website used wording and images from genuine university websites, including the real University of Wolverhampton. Unscrupulous candidates presented certificates and transcripts to employers as genuine. The transcript carried details of how to check its validity by going to the website.
The student number from the transcript was entered and the student's details confirmed on screen. The employer thought they had verified the applicant.
Hedd investigated this and the website was shut down.
Over the summer, large numbers of graduates tweeted photos of themselves posing with degree certificates at ceremonies around the UK. To celebrate their successes, these were frequently and innocently retweeted by universities.
Once published and added to the gallery of Google images, these photos give anyone looking to make fake degree certificates the current designs for many UK universities, which they can then duplicate - logo, crest, signatory, stamps, holograms and forms of words.
Hedd contacted each university's social media team, advising them not to include certificates in their photo tweets and to advise their students not to do so either.
For more information on how to identify fake certificates and bogus universities, download the Hedd toolkits:
Toolkit for employers
Toolkit for higher education providers
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