By Jeff Balke
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Do you want a college degree but don't have time for all that pesky "studying" for "exams"? Do you dream of having a doctorate in something you know absolutely nothing about? Do you have $249?
If you answered "yes" to any of those questions, you may be a candidate for the prestigious online Belford University, accredited by the equally prestigious International Accreditation Agency for Online Universities and the Universal Council for Online Education Accreditation.
Here's what Belford will offer you:
• a degree shipped to your door, straight from the United Arab Emirates, within a week
• a standard 3.5 GPA, or a 4.0 for an extra $75
• a vast array of fields -- you can even get a master's degree in law!
You can do all kinds of things with your Belford degree. You can fold it into a paper airplane. You can draw on it with crayons. You can light it on fire, as you did with your $249. But if you really want to make money, you should try to become part of the Belford faculty. FBI raids on degree mills have shown that those professors make millions. And you don't even need a degree.
Belford University's administrative offices in Humble are small.
They're so cozy, in fact, that a human being could not fit inside them. That's because they are a post office box; or at least they were, until a few months ago when someone closed their account at the USA 2Me mailbox store on Will Clayton Parkway.
Belford has several different Web sites, which vary slightly in format and content (www.belforduniversity.net, www.belforduniversity.org). They even have a Belford High School. Only one site appears to list the B-movie villain name of its purported president, Melville P. Crowe. The signature beneath Crowe's message to prospective students is clearly not Melville P. Crowe. Googling Melville P. Crowe only brings you back to the Belford Web site.
Same with the names of its professors and its distinguished alums, which include Michael Fonseca, recently "promoted to the post of Divisional Head for Romuna Securities, a subsidiary of Romuna Group." Romuna Group itself appears to be a subsidiary of Fake Company, Inc., because it exists solely in the universe of Belford. The "latest news" section of the site states, "Belford student's [sic] arranged a 'Meet-Up' in Minneapolis last week." A search of old Belford sites on www.archive.org reveals that this group has been meeting every "last week" for the last three years.
One of their domain names is listed to a Marsha Marshall on Blankenship Drive in Houston, which is actually a clothing store with no ties whatsoever to the "university." When we called Marsha Marshall's Chicago-area phone number, we reached a small business owner who said he had no idea why he had received numerous calls for Marshall.
The main reason why is that his is the only working number associated with a specific (alleged) Belford staffer. Belford prefers to correspond strictly by e-mail, although they do offer a toll-free customer service line. We talked to a "student advisor" named Jimmy James (a cousin of Marsha Marshall?) who would not provide any contact info for Melville P. Crowe or Belford's purported registrar, William John.
This runaround has led to many a complaint filed at the Greater Houston Better Business Bureau. The complaints come from across the country. In some cases, Belford has issued full or partial refunds. In all cases, it's evident that Belford doesn't care whom they rip off.
One complaint came from Sgt. John Kerins, deployed to Iraq from Fort Hood. Since Kerins was busy fighting a war, we talked instead to his wife, Patricia. She said Kerins and many of his fellow soldiers believed they were buying legitimate aviation degrees to earn promotion points. Kerins had the degree shipped to his wife, who then sent it to him.
"It looked like something you could use in a frame," Patricia Kerins said in a telephone interview. But when the military rejected the diplomas, she hounded Belford for weeks, finally winning an 85 percent refund. The university kept the balance to cover "material" and postage costs.
David Linkletter of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board said the board reported Belford to the state Attorney General's office in March. The board also reported another degree mill, Rochville University (www.rochvilleuniversity.org), which appears to be operated by the same people.
"This is not a legitimate institute of higher education," Linkletter says from Austin. "No legitimate university offers a complete degree on the basis of one's life experience. I particularly like the 'order now' button on their Web site, which is another clue...To the extent that Belford University is in Texas, it is operating in violation of the Texas Education Code."
Since last September, Linkletter says, the code makes it illegal to use a fraudulent or substandard degree for purposes of employment, business promotion or to seek admission to a university.
"It's most likely that Belford University and Rochville University and these accrediting institutions are all the same entity," he says. "It's most likely that they are not actually located in the United States."
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 Industrywith 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.
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.