The diploma-mill operation that sent King County sheriff candidate Jim Fuda a "diploma" in public administration may have grossed as much...

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The diploma-mill operation that sent King County sheriff candidate Jim Fuda a “diploma” in public administration may have grossed as much as $450 million over five years in an international scam, a former FBI agent and fake-diploma expert said yesterday.

So-called Kingsfield University, where Fuda got his degree, is part of an elaborate operation that issued fake degrees based on little more than a phone call, said Allen Ezell, a retired FBI agent and author who is a nationally recognized expert on phony colleges.

Kingsfield is one of at least 18 names the University Degree Program used to issue fake diplomas between 1998 and 2003, when it was shut down in a civil action by the Federal Trade Commission.

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Ezell has amassed a large collection of fake degrees, including 10 bachelor’s degrees, 19 master’s degrees, four Ph.D.s and two M.D.s.

“It took me a minute and a half to be qualified,” he said. “On [University Degree Program], you have to know that it’s bogus from the beginning.”

The King County Sheriff’s Office is going over diplomas submitted to them by employees seeking pay raises to make sure they’re authentic.

Avoiding diploma mills


So-called “diploma mills” offer degrees with few or no requirements. Here are some tips to make sure an online university is legitimate.

Accreditation: Many schools claim to be accredited. Check to make sure it is listed in a U.S. Department of Education database at www.ope.ed.gov/

accreditation.

Telltale signs: Watch for promises that you won’t have to study or take exams. Phony universities often offer degrees within a few days or weeks for a flat fee. They often advertise through unsolicited spam and pop-ups.

Ask: If you’re not sure, call your local college or university and ask whether it would accept transfer credits from the school you’re considering.

Double-check: Don’t rely on a legitimate-sounding name or assume a school is legitimate because its Web site ends in “.edu.”

Source: Federal Trade Commission

It wasn’t clear yesterday whether any other sheriff’s deputies had fake degrees, but national experts said yesterday that diploma-mill degrees are widespread.

“It’s interesting that it’s a sheriff candidate, because in our experience there are certain fields in which these degrees turn up most often, and one of those fields is law enforcement,” said Alan Contreras, administrator for Oregon’s Office of Degree Authorization.

Oregon is one of a growing number of states with a law against using degrees from “unaccredited providers.” Washington has no such law.

George Gollin, a physics professor at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, ran across the fake universities touted by the University Degree Program when he couldn’t get rid of their spam. He called the number advertised in a pop-up on his computer and ended up getting a pitch from a sales representative who tried to sell him a degree from “Parkwood University,” another University Degree Program front.

He quickly discovered it was a scam by comparing Parkwood’s Web site with those of other phony colleges, many of which had university “presidents” making identical statements on their home pages, identical course listings, and no phone numbers for faculty members.

“I think you’d have to be brain dead to think that you’re really getting a real degree from them,” he said.

Most Internet diploma mills advertise that they award degrees based on “life experience.” The Rochville University Web site offers diplomas for as little as $199 with, according to its home page, “No studies, no attendance, no waiting, no examinations, no hefty fee.”

Some require a portfolio or other proof of “life experience,” according to Ezell.

Fuda said he submitted a portfolio to get his degree from Kingsfield. He e-mailed an essay about his accomplishments, including training he had taken and courses he taught, he said.

Fuda said he believed he was getting a legitimate degree for his life experience, even though he knew Kingsfield was nonaccredited. He submitted the diploma to the county personnel office, not knowing if they would accept it. When they did, he assumed his degree was valid.

Contreras was critical of King County authorities for accepting Fuda’s degree.

“It makes me wonder what the human-resources people in King County are doing in terms of screening if they don’t realize that this is a fake institution,” he said.

It’s easy to get a list of accredited U.S. schools, Contreras said, and for a British school like Kingsfield, “one phone call to the British consulate in Seattle would have figured that out. … What it is, is that somebody did not bother to do basic research.”

“We certainly would never have accepted it if we had known it was from a diploma-mill college or pretend college,” said Ralph Cady, the human-resources analyst who approved Fuda’s 2 percent pay increase that came with the degree. “I don’t know how it slipped through, but it slipped through.”

Until the Fuda issue arose, the Sheriff’s Office accepted either a transcript or a copy of a diploma as proof of a degree, according to Sgt. John Urquhart. From now on, only a certified transcript will be accepted, he said.

Ezell said that precautionary measure might not be enough, since usually diploma mills offer a “degree package” — including a diploma, two transcripts and sometimes even letters of reference.

That’s just one example of how sophisticated diploma mills have become.

Last month, law-enforcement authorities raided suspected diploma mills in Spokane and Post Falls, Idaho. According to court documents filed in U.S. District Court, a Spokane-area couple is under investigation for their involvement in a large Internet-based fake-degree operation.

“They’re not just operating with a guy out in his garage selling diplomas,” Gollin said. “They’re multinational operations that span a number of states and a number of countries.”

Ezell is pushing for tougher regulation of diploma mills because he thinks they are harmful.

“It confuses the market,” he said. “It confuses the public. You can’t take away what either of my daughters learned at college, but you can devalue the piece of paper they walked out with.”

Seattle Times staff reporter Maureen O’Hagan contributed to this report.

Emily Heffter: 206-464-8246 or eheffter@seattletimes.com