In what may be one of the largest cases of a possible ‘diploma mill’ handled by federal agents, a two-year investigation by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) has resulted in the arrest of the President of an alleged ‘sham’ university – Tri-Valley University in Pleasanton, California – on charges that include student visa fraud, money laundering, and alien harboring, according to a news release from ICE.

ICE is accusing the Tri-Valley University President of engaging in a “scheme to defraud the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) by submitting phony documents in support of Tri-Valley University’s applications to admit foreign nationals on student visas.” In addition, the indictment also alleges that after obtaining approvals, the President issued fraudulent visa-related documents to the estimated enrollment of 2,500 student aliens in exchange for “tuition and fees.”

Through alleged false representations, ICE claims the President of Tri-Valley University – a 41-year-old woman from Pleasanton, CA – was able to obtain and issue “F-1” student visa documents unlawfully with no regard for the academic qualifications of the students or their intent to pursue a course of study required to maintain a lawful immigration status. The defendant also allegedly engaged in money laundering totaling over $3.2 million.

According to the ICE news release, the “F-1” student visa program allows foreign nationals who are bona fide students to be admitted to the United States on a temporary basis to study at an approved school for a temporary period during which they are required to pursue a full course of study or the duration of status ends. In administering the F-1 visa program, the DHS relies on the representations made by the schools and students.

The 33 counts in the indictment – which include wire fraud, mail fraud, visa fraud and conspiracy to commit visa fraud, use of a false document, making false statements to a government agency, alien harboring, unauthorized access to a government computer, and money laundering – carry maximum penalties ranging up to 20 years imprisonment. To read the news release, visit

As reported earlier on the ESR News blog, so-called diploma mills – defined as “largely online entities whose degrees are worthless due to the lack of valid accreditation and recognition” – are a growing problem in both the United States and worldwide. A new report from Europe’s leading background screening company revealed a 48 percent increase worldwide in the number of known fake diploma mills in the past year.

According to the second annual Accredibase™ Report for 2011, the United States was the world’s fake college capital and saw a 20 percent increase in known diploma mills, with the number rising from 810 to 1,008. The report also found that California had the highest amount of known sham universities, with 147 diploma mills. As a result, several U.S. states are considering legislation to combat the use of diploma mills:

  • Idaho: Lawmakers in Idaho recently approved an “anti-diploma mill” bill making it easier to target bogus education providers operating in the state.
  • Missouri: The Governor of Missouri signed diploma mill legislation in February 2011 that made it illegal to use false academic credentials to apply for jobs, college, or in connection with business, employment, or public office.
  • New York: The Diploma and Accreditation Integrity Protection Act was introduced in New York proposing to protect the integrity of bona fide qualifications by targeting the sale and use of fraudulent degrees.
  • California: A haven for diploma mills due to the lack of regulation and a long period with no licensing, California finally reinstated a program of approval for higher education institutions.

Attorney Lester Rosen, founder and President of Employment Screening Resources (ESR), a background check company headquartered in the San Francisco Bay area and accredited by the National Association of Background Screeners (NAPBS®), claims that “genuine” fake diplomas are on the rise in his book ‘The Safe Hiring Manual,’ the first comprehensive guide to employment screening background checks:

Getting a college diploma apparently no longer requires years of hard work, taking tests, paying tuition or even reading a book. Why bother going though the formalities when all a person needs is a credit card and a web browser in order to buy an authentic looking diploma that mimics real colleges, universities and even high schools across the U.S. Go to any search engine and run keywords such as “fake Diploma” and anyone can instantly “graduate” from nearly any school in America with a very handsome and authentic looking diploma suitable for hanging.

To recognize diploma mills, Rosen suggests checking suspicious colleges and universities with the following websites:

Accredibase™ has identified approximately 5,000 suspect educational institutions and accreditors. In addition to the 2,615 confirmed diploma mills, more than 2,000 suspect institutions are currently under investigation.

About Employment Screening Resources (ESR): Founded in 1997 in the San Francisco Bay area with a mission to help employers and employees maintain safe workplaces, Employment Screening Resources (ESR) wrote the book on background checks with ‘The Safe Hiring Manual’ by ESR founder and President Lester Rosen. ESR is Accredited by The National Association of Professional Background Screeners (NAPBS®) and is a Designated E-Verify Employer Agent helping U.S. businesses maintain legal workforces. For more information about Employment Screening Resources, visit or email ESR News Editor Thomas Ahearn at [email protected].



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