Phony degree scam exposed
Temptation to become an 'instant grad' fuels this man's busy trade in finely forged diplomas
Dec 07, 2008 04:30 AM
For $3,000, Peng Sun can turn anyone into an instant graduate from the most prestigious universities in the country.
For another $1,000, he'll provide authentic-looking transcripts for the dozens of classes you never attended.
All you need is a bundle of cash and the nerve to meet him in a parking lot somewhere in the GTA. In return you will get a forged university degree virtually indistinguishable from the real thing.
We know this because for $4,000, Peng Sun made a York University MBA diploma for a Star operative posing as a Toronto bank employee who needed one quickly to land a high-paying job in China. In three days, Sun produced documents that would take years and hefty tuition fees for a real student to earn.
Education leaders say the widespread production of bogus degrees damages the academic system and police warn that forged documents create security risks.
Sun's counterfeit ring, the brash 26-year-old York University grad claims, has forged hundreds of college and university degrees in the past four years. He started the business while a visa student at York.
“Three (degrees) per week, a good week, I get four,” Sun told the Star's undercover operative of the high demand for his bogus degrees.
His work is top-notch. His prices are higher than those charged by diploma mills advertising on the Internet because his fakes are of superior quality, for real universities, printed on thick, watermarked paper, and stamped with university seals.
For the $4,000 Sun also provided two copies of grade transcripts in sealed York University envelopes ready to hand to prospective employers.
“Once you crack the watermark you can forge anything,” Sun boasted to one of two operatives the Star used during a two-month investigation. “You can print money.”
University of Toronto and York University degrees are the most sought after by his clients, mainly students who don't want to study, or immigrants returning to China who need a diploma to land a well-paying job. Sun said the price for a bachelor's degree, MBA or PhD is the same. For him, it's the same amount of work, paper and ink.
“I have friends from China who spend three years here, didn't want to go to school, but got York and U of T degree (from him) then got a job,” Sun boasted. “There are many of them. It's funny.”
“My quality is the best. You can't even distinguish. The paper, its weight, quality, pattern, colour, fonts, layout, logo design, stamp, seal are the same as the real thing.”
“You will get your return,” Sun said to the operative's comment that $4,000 was a lot of money. “If you pay 30 years of tuition fees, you still have to study for 30 years.”
Sun advertises his fake degrees on an Internet bulletin board. He did not ask to see any identification before undertaking to make an MBA degree for one of our operatives, who went by the name Calvin Wai Tak Lee. After email and telephone exchanges, Calvin Lee met Sun in the Shoppers Drug Mart parking lot at Yonge St. and Finch Ave. two weeks ago. Our operative gave him a date of birth, the requested graduating year (2006), plus a $400 cash down payment.
Three days later, Calvin Lee had his Master of Business Administration from York's prestigious Schulich School of Business, bearing the embossed slogan “with all the honours, rights and privileges which appertain to this degree.” The degree was delivered at a meeting that began in Sun's white Toyota Yaris in the same parking lot.
Bearing a graduation date of June 2006, the degree carries the university's crimson seal and the forged signatures of then-Chancellor Peter Cory and President Lorna Marsden. Cory is a former Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada and Marsden is a former Canadian senator.
For the $4,000 Sun also provided transcripts detailing two years of alleged study in marketing courses at Schulich, awarding Calvin Lee an A in Organizational Behaviour, but only a C+ in Strategy Field Study.
Shown the bogus degree and transcripts, York University Registrar Joanne Duklas was both impressed by the quality of the forgeries and outraged that anyone, especially a former student, would undertake such “nefarious” work.
“As a group, registrars of schools are appalled by this behaviour and find it unacceptable,” said Duklas, whose forged signature is on the transcripts.
So confident was Sun about the quality of his work that before taking his payment, he drove Calvin to the York University bookstore at the Keele St. campus to compare his newly minted forgery to framed samples on display there.
Back in the car, Sun demanded the remaining $3,600 before turning over the degree, stashing the cash in an empty Godiva chocolate box and shoving it under his car seat.
As he drove the Star's operative back to the Shoppers' lot, Sun sought to involve our operative in another of his scams, asking Calvin (who was posing as a banker) if he could put him in contact with someone at the bank who deals with mortgages and loans.
“Some people want to return to China, sell their passports, SIN cards, and we can use their names to go to the bank and get loans,” Sun explained. “Once you get the money in hand …”
When they reached Shoppers, two Star reporters confronted Sun as he was about to drive off. Startled, Sun said little, then grudgingly handed over the box of money when asked by the Star.
“I'm just doing research,” Sun said several times, when told that he had been the subject of the newspaper's probe into fake university degrees.
“I reserve the question,” Sun said several times, when asked to explain his actions.
“Can I go now?” he asked, then sped off in the Yaris in the direction of his luxury condo two blocks away on Greenview Ave. Property records show that he paid $410,000 for the unit and it is mortgage free. At a previous meeting Sun had arrived in a $60,000 BMW 525xi, bearing the vanity plate A 001. Subsequent phone calls to Sun's cellphone have gone unanswered.
Sun's own York University degree is real. He graduated from the Atkinson School of Administrative Studies in 2007 with a Bachelor of Human Resources Management and upgraded it to an honours degree this year, the university confirmed. But in discussions with our operatives, Sun played down his academic achievements, saying his degree has been of limited use to him. In China, as it is in Canada, it's who you know and your work experience that counts, he said.
“I've forgotten everything (I learned) in school. All theoretical. Nothing useful.”
Sun came to Canada as a visa student years ago and took courses at Humber College before enrolling at York. Known to friends, clients and in Internet chat rooms as “Randy,” he has advertised on the Internet for years, primarily on YorkBBS.ca, a bulletin board popular with Chinese visa students. He calls his company Golden China Overseas Studying.
That's where a Mandarin-speaking Star operative saw his ads, not only for diplomas, but automobile insurance, student cards and other types of identification.
Contacted by email, Sun boasted openly of his ability to produce degrees from most Canadian universities, with the exception of the University of Western Ontario in London. A University of Toronto degree would have to carry a graduation date prior to June of this year. U of T has started using holographs on its diplomas, which are harder to copy, but Sun said recently he is now in a position to fabricate the new U of T degrees, for $6,000.
“We have the watermark paper, we have the seals,” Sun said. “My quality is very, very, good. As close as you can get to the real thing.”
Besides the degrees, he offered for sale numerous other counterfeit documents, which could push the price to more than $10,000. These include forged letters from the Chinese Consulate in Toronto and the Chinese Ministry of Education in Beijing attesting the client as a bona fide student in Canada.
“I can get all these documents pretty fast,” Sun said in an email prior to the first of three face-to-face meetings with the Star's operatives. “If it is not urgent, give me a week. The pivotal question is, when you will need it?”
He does not provide samples of his work, he said, because he can't take a chance of being caught with any evidence or have his work fall into the hands of his competitors. “I used to show samples to all customers. One evening I was in a parking lot at Finch and Leslie. I was showing samples. Not even five minutes, police came to us. I was quick. I put them away. Police said someone called police and reported you selling fake documents. I said, no, I'm here chilling out with friends.
“Since then I don't carry any samples with me.”
Chinese employers rarely check the authenticity of foreign degrees, he told one of our operatives. Even if they do, universities don't normally give out information over the phone, preferring a faxed request, he said. In that case, the applicant should provide the employer with a fax number in Toronto. Confirmation of the degree will then be faxed to China on the university's letterhead. For his protection, and that of his clients, Sun claims he purges all client information from his laptop, and shreds all documents a week after the transaction is sealed and delivered.
“The last person you want to see, after you buy a degree from me, is me,” Sun told one of our operatives.
The bogus-degree market is a billion-dollar industry, authorities say, with hundreds of Internet sites pumping out an estimated 200,000 fake diplomas a year around the globe. Fake degrees pose a security risk in the hands of potential terrorists, who might use them to gain entry into North America or advance into sensitive jobs. Two of the terrorists involved in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks entered the United States on student visas.
“The dangers posed by a diploma mill are real,'' says University of Illinois Professor George Gollin, who has studied the problem for years. “It is bad enough that persons using fake degrees obtain undeserved status or swindle unwitting victims, but there is a real danger when phony physicians treat the sick, untrained engineers design bridges or teachers with purchased credentials instruct our children.”
In April 2007, York Regional Police arrested five Chinese visa students alleged to be operating a “full-service” forgery mill in the basement of a house in Markham.
The gang had produced “hundreds, if not thousands” of top-quality degrees, passports, visas, driver's licences and marriage certificates and sold them on the Internet. Among the hundreds of documents seized by police were degrees from U of T, York, Western, Carleton, Acadia, Brock, Seneca College and George Brown, as well as stamps used to produce the university seals and blank watermarked transcripts.
“This was quite the brazen operation,” York Regional Police Chief Armand La Barge said at a news conference to announce the biggest takedown of a forgery den in Ontario's history.
“They were charging $18,000 for immigration papers and enough other documents that you could create an entire false identity.”
The sophistication of the degree-making operation was such that diplomas matched the correct university president's signature to the year of the graduation.
“I've never seen quality like this,” Det. Mathew Ma, an expert on high-tech crime, told reporters. “I can't tell the difference between the false and the originals.”
But the case blew up in court last month after a judge ruled police entered the house initially without a warrant or reasonable grounds. Charges were withdrawn against three of the accused, and Justice Richard Blouin acquitted the other two, a husband and wife.
The quality and volume of fake documents presented serious national security concerns, Blouin said in his ruling.
The Star has no evidence linking Peng Sun to that forgery operation.
Bogus diplomas diminish the value of the work legitimate students put into obtaining real degrees, said George Granger, executive director of Ontario Universities Application Centre, which acts as a clearing house for student seeking admission to Ontario's 21 universities.
“No one really knows how extensive this is, but we do know it is a problem and the universities are taking steps to deal with it,” Granger said. Some of those measures include changing the look of their degrees every so often.
Watermarked paper, which is intended to foil forgery attempts, is kept under lock and key. Transcripts are printed on special paper that can't be photocopied without the word “copy” showing through. Each sheet is numbered and spoiled transcripts are destroyed.
“We treat our degrees like currency,” said Laurie Stephens, director of media relations for U of T. New degrees are imprinted with a hologram to deter would-be forgers.
Employers and other interested parties can now request verification of any U of T degree online, if they know the student's name, social insurance number or student number. They will get an answer in five days. York University is considering a similar move.
U of T graduates about 12,000 students a year. Both U of T and York get several hundred calls each week from prospective employers and other universities, many of them overseas. Anyone with a concern about the legitimacy of a degree should contact the Registrar's Office at either school.
Canada has no law specific to degree forgery, though in 20 American states it is a crime to use fake degrees and the U.S. Congress is studying legislation to deal with diploma mills.
In Canada, allegations of degree forgery come under the forgery section of the Criminal Code. “Possessing a false document could be defended on the basis that it is a novelty item,” said criminal lawyer Scott Cowan, who defended one of the accused in the Markham bust. “But passing off a fake degree as an original in a job application would amount to the offence of uttering a forged document. It could be as serious as using a counterfeit bill.”
“Make sure you buy a frame to frame your diploma,” Peng Sun told Calvin Lee as he left his car with the bogus degree in his briefcase. “You can even get it from Wal-Mart. If you have a problem, call me. Good luck.”
Dale Brazao can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 416-869-4433.
PRICIEST FAKE: 'DIPLOMA' FROM U OF T
Here is the price list Peng Sun quoted in emails and brought with him to meetings with a Star undercover operative:
$3,000 Most university degrees (York, University of Toronto, etc.)
$6,000 University of Toronto-post 2006 (with anti-counterfeit hologram)
$1,000 Two copies of sealed transcripts, on watermarked paper
$1,000 Letter from the Chinese Ministry of Education
$500 Admission letter from university
$600 Proof of tuition payments
$1,750 Student photo ID card
$900 Graduation letter from Canadian university
$300 Reference letter
$800 Enrolment notice
Sun also told the Star operative he offers “different combos, with gift packages.”
Forged degree investigation: Transcript
The Star went undercover to purchase a forged university degree. Here is a partial transcript of two conversations between Peng Sun (who made the degree) and Calvin Lee, the Star operative.