Cyber-detective work by university lawyers across North America has helped shut an internet site that was offering fake Ivy League and Oxbridge degree diplomas, writes Philip Fine in Montreal.
After discovering that his university was among the 2,000-plus names that could be printed on high-quality diplomas
by a company called College-Degrees.to, Steven McDonald, a lawyer at Ohio State University, decided to take legal action. But he and the other North American university lawyers with whom he had been exchanging information on degree mill websites knew that internet fraud artists operated anonymously.
The company advertised diplomas that would "fool anyone", created with sophisticated printing techniques that could insert watermarks or attach metallic mylar security strips. The diplomas, bearing any university name the customer chose, sold for $250 (Pounds 155).
The internet address ended with the two-letter notation for Tonga, in the South Pacific, but the lawyers believed it originated in North America and used Tonga as an intermediary.
After looking through the source code of the website, Mr McDonald eventually found out it was run by an Anthony Soriano, operating out
of Florida via a server called Hiway Technologies.
A cease-and-desist letter was sent to Mr Soriano and the server in November, stating that their actions constituted trademark and copyright infringement and fraud. Mr McDonald kept his colleagues at the National Association of College and University Lawyers updated. Days later the site was no longer running.
It is not known how many fake diplomas are in circulation, but university lawyers and registrars are worried about their possible impact.
"With the technology available, it's hard to imagine others are not doing this," said the University of Alberta's legal counsel, Steven Hillier, who had been planning to send a cease-and-
desist letter before the site closed.
The lawyers said they hear of a new website offering fake degrees every couple of months.
Susan Haglund, of the Technical University of British Columbia, said trademark infringement is an important issue: "The one thing a university has is its reputation. If you hit on their credentials, you're going to the heart of their being."