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Sat, Nov 28, 2009
The New Paper
How to spot a fake certificate

By Larry Haverkamp

HOW does one check up on a person's academic credentials?

In Asia, the most common way is to look at the certificate. Most people keep a file of important papers, which includes their certs.

They bring the certs to an interview where a company's human resources (HR) officer verifies that they are authentic.

But how can one verify them with no originals to compare them to?

You would show your Harvard cert, but employers don't keep an original cert from Harvard for comparison.

Even if they did, what good would it do? Certs are relatively easy to duplicate, and HR managers are not counterfeit experts.

All an employer can do is look for the obvious, like whether the seal looks real and the wording seems right.

It is also a good idea to check the spelling. If the cert spells: 'Unevirsety', it might raise suspicions.

As ridiculous as that sounds, something similar happened six months ago with Brookes Business School on Beach Road. It offered fake degrees from the prestigious Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology - RMIT - in Australia.

This went unnoticed for years before someone spotted misspelled words on the certs. It is surprising that no one noticed earlier, and even today, no one seems to be sure how many are holding fake RMIT degrees.

The school's owner claims he paid an initial US$10,000 ($14,000) to a Vietnamese man for rights to offer the programme.

The man cannot be located and the owner claims he is also a victim.

I recently interviewed a graduate from RMIT. After telling me his degree was from RMIT, he quickly added: 'And it's a real one.'

There are three main ways to check a degree's authenticity. The simplest turns out to be the most foolproof.

Less secure

Professor Koh Hian Chye, Dean of the School of Business at SIM University, explained what seems to be the standard method in Singapore for verifying academic credentials: 'Applicants are required to submit a copy of their graduation certificates along with the originals.

'Our staff will compare the copy with the original to see that they are the same. The originals will be returned to the applicant while the copy will be sent for application processing.'

HR professionals tell me UniSIM's approach can't be faulted. Everyone does it that way.

The problem is that it's hard to tell if a cert is real or fake. Today's copying and printing technology makes it easy to duplicate a cert and it can be harder to spot than a counterfeit $100 note.

More secure

An approach used mainly in the US is to have the documents sent directly from the school.

The employer asks the applicant to ask the school to send an academic transcript directly to the employer.

On receipt, the employer verifies the document by inspecting the letterhead, postmark and transcript.

It is not foolproof since printing a fake letterhead and transcript is even easier than printing a phony cert.

One can also have the transcript sent from almost any city using online mailing services.

A word about academic transcripts: They are the only way to show classes taken and grades received.

Students are often disappointed to learn that few employers ask for them. This means all their hard work to earn good grades goes unrecognised.

Employers are practical and care more about work experience, especially when a person has been out of school for a few years. Most never ask to see a transcript or grades.

Most secure

The best way to verify academic credentials is also the simplest. It is to pick up the phone and call the school.

It is easy to find a school's phone number on its website. The registrar's office will confirm (i) whether a person was enrolled at the school and (ii) the date they graduated.

A similar approach is to write in and ask for the information. The Confederation of Indian Industry told me: 'In India, many companies ask for written verification as there have been a lot of problems with phony university credentials in recent years.'

The future

What about online verification? It seems the obvious thing to do. The educational institutions I spoke to said they will consider doing this in the future. I couldn't find any that do it now.

This article was first published in The New Paper.

 
 
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