First-Degree Fraud

Just $249 gets you a bachelor's -- or, hell, a master's -- from Belford University, an online diploma mill with local ties

Operating outside of the U.S. is usually a good way to avoid authorities, but sometimes authorities can catch up.

John Bear is a degree mill expert who co-wrote Degree Mills: The Billion Dollar Industry with former FBI agent Allen Ezell. The book documents the investigations Ezell ran in the 1980s, known as Operation DipScam. According to Bear, the biggest diploma mill discovered had grossed $450 million over nine years. The mill sold more than 250,000 degrees and was run by Americans operating out of Romania and Israel.

In the mid-1990s, the notorious LaSalle University, run out of Louisiana, grossed $35 million in four years. The operations have basically no overhead and can be run by as few as three or four people.

Doug Boehm

Spotting a degree mill should be easy, Bear says.

"If somebody comes up to you on the street and offers you a Rolex for $10 -- you have to know," he says from California. "You can't possibly believe it's real."

But if you're still not sure, and you want to use the degree for college credit, just call the registrars in the schools you're considering. Most registrars are aware of degree mills and can provide an answer on the spot.

But what about in business?

"Businesses are not nearly as skillful or caring about detecting fake degrees," Bear says. "In the academic world, the time bombs will go off eventually, but in the business world, many, many people are contentedly using them."

But if you're still not sure about Belford's credentials, it might be best to speak with a current student. The best bet is to go to Minneapolis. A student group is meeting there last week.

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