2 Fake Law Diplomas and a $37M Haul

A Samara professor earned an eye-popping $37 million teaching law at seven schools over the course of three years.

The problem is that he landed the teaching jobs with fake diplomas that he bought for about $2,000 after seeing an advertisement near a Moscow metro, investigators said.

Samara prosecutors have opened a criminal investigation into the professor, Oleg Shepil, on suspicion of large-scale fraud. Shepil, a 48-year-old law graduate from the Samara Economics Academy, maintains that the case is unwarranted because he bought the diplomas only to raise his prestige in the eyes of colleagues, not for the money, said Ulyana Kudinova, spokeswoman for the Samara Regional Prosecutor's Office.

Indeed, money is not the issue, said Alexander Izotkin, head of the Institute for Educational Policy Problems, an education think tank. "It's about nationwide corruption that makes it possible to get fake diplomas and about the quality of the education that our students receive," he said.

President Dmitry Medvedev has declared war on corruption in order to protect businesses from corrupt officials and make judges independent. But Georgy Satarov, head of the anti-corruption Indem think tank, said "everyday corruption" is the worst kind, when students pay professors for good grades and people pay doctors for treatment.

Shepil bought fake master's and doctorate degrees in Moscow in 2004, Kudinova said. He saw a sign near Sukharevskaya metro station, called the posted telephone number and met with a man who charged 22,000 rubles for a master's degree and 25,000 rubles for the doctorate. "His doctorate was issued on the official paper of the state grading department of the Education Ministry," Kudinova said by telephone. The ministry's paper, she said, had been stolen.

Shepil taught law at seven institutes on the basis of the fake law diplomas from August 2004 to September last year, Kudinova said. She said he earned about 1 billion rubles. The case was opened after the Federal Security Service sent information to prosecutors, she said, but she had no further details about how Shepil was caught.

He faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted of fraud and participating in the falsification of official documents.

There is no shortage of possibilities for people looking to obtain fake graduate or postgraduate diplomas. For low-income earners, there are cheap ones costing $200 to $300 that can be ordered in Moscow pedestrian underpasses from people holding signs saying "diplomy." The documents they provide are printed on ordinary paper with no watermark.

Still, people buy them. A woman selling diplomas near Kropotkinskaya metro station this week said she receives four to five orders per day. "People prefer diplomas in business and law," she said, refusing to give her name.

But those who want a more authentic-looking degree have to pay more. Web sites offer diplomas printed on the official paper of Goznak, the government agency that also produces banknotes and coins, and they come complete with original typesetting, stamps and professors' signatures, which only an expert could identify as fake. The only difference between the fake and original diplomas is that the fake ones are not recorded in the official state registry. Shepil's diplomas were not on this list.

"Traditionally, nobody checks whether your diploma is on the list or not, only if you try to get a job in the police or FSB," said Vladimir, the owner of a web site offering fake diplomas. He refused to give his last name.

With a certificate of this kind, a buyer can go to an employer without any fear, he said. "Many of my clients got interesting and well-paid jobs," he said.

The process takes three days. The first step is to choose the type of diploma -- either an "old pattern" document of the style issued by Soviet or Russian institutions before 1996, or a "new pattern" document from more recent years. The "old pattern" documents costs 15,000 rubles, while those of the "new pattern" go for 20,000 rubles, Vladimir said. For an additional fee of 10,000 rubles, one can order a supplementary document -- an academic record listing grades. The exact grades are a matter "to be discussed with the client," but the final price does not depend on how high they are, he said.

"People prefer to put the grades 5 and 4," Vladimir said with a chuckle, referring to the two highest grades in the Russian educational system.

While it is rare for anybody in Russia to lack a secondary education diploma, even those can be bought for 11,000 to 14,000 rubles, depending on the year of graduation.

To apply for a diploma, an applicant needs to enter his personal data and educational background in an online form. Once the form is submitted, the client receives "recommendations" regarding the most appropriate type of the educational establishment, although the client may also offer ideas, Vladimir said.

"We have samples of rectors' signatures for most of the country's educational institutes," he said.

It is possible to see how the certificate will look in advance, with a scanned preview. No prepayment is required -- payment is made only after a courier delivers the document.

Vladimir said that if a client wanted a real certificate listed in the official registry, with the real stamp of the institute and the real signatures of the professors, the price would be much higher -- at least 400,000 rubles -- and it would require a wait of about eight months.

Corruption is rampant in the education system, in part because professors and other education officials are poorly paid. A professor with a doctorate earns 10,000 to 12,000 rubles a month in the regions and about 30,000 rubles a month in Moscow. Students often pay bribes for admission to schools and good grades. The fact that Shepil is accused of earning millions of dollars in three years suggests that he knew how to work the system.

"The saddest part of the situation is that it is not only about fraud being carried out by several bad people," said Izotkin, of the Institute for Educational Policy Problems. "It's about corruption in our educational system."