Diploma mills sell degrees at any level, ranging from bachelor to PhD. The way I see it, the sole purpose of getting milled diplomas is to deceive others. As such, I expect the consequences of getting caught to be sufficiently severe.

I wonder if there are known cases of people getting prosecuted for using such fake degrees to land a certain job. I know there are plenty of cases where said people got fired, for instance here.

I am mainly interested in the consequences of obtaining fake PhDs and subsequently using the supposedly obtained titles. In Belgium and the Netherlands, for instance, the formal title of 'Doctor' is legally protected, so unjustified use could lead to prosecution. I assume this is also the case in some other countries (examples are most welcome), since we have a lot of questions pertaining 'can I call myself X in country Y after obtaining Z'.


3 Answers 3


See here for one case:


And here's the official announcement:


Apparently, in the US, one can be charged with "criminal possession of a forged instrument" and "offering a false instrument for filing".

However, this case concerns a fake degree from a real institution. As noted below, the Diploma Mill case is much more complex. See here for a discussion of the legal issues:


  • 5
    While entirely correct, I don't think this is in the spirit of the question. I think the OP specifically wants to know whether one can be arrested for using a Diploma Mill degree, not a faked one of a real university.
    – xLeitix
    Nov 11, 2014 at 11:52
  • Good point. I've added an additional answer. Nov 11, 2014 at 12:08
  • As @xLeitix correctly notes the original answer was not completely what I am interested in, though it is related and quite interesting to read! Nov 11, 2014 at 12:26
  • As it stands, this still doesn't address the diploma-mill question, other than saying "it's complex, here's a link to a US legal discussion." We're looking for answers here to address the question, and to provide information here in the body of the answer. While links elsewhere are useful in supporting such an answer, an answer that is barely more than a link is insufficient.
    – 410 gone
    Nov 11, 2014 at 18:21
  • How's this? elpasotimes.com/ci_22172914/… Nov 11, 2014 at 18:29

You should probably just read the wikipedia article on Diploma Mills in the US. Here's my short summary.

There are a few legally protected titles in some states. For instance, you can't call yourself a Doctor, Lawyer, or Professional Engineer in Michigan without having passed the relevant licensing tests and have obtained a degree from an accredited educational program.

This essentially forms a chain of trust. For a profession engineer, the state requires you obtain an NCEES license, they perform testing and also require an educational degree from an accredited institution, and they only trust a handful of accrediting agencies.

One accreditation list is maintained by the US Department of Education.

For instance, the University of Michigan is accredited by an organization that the US Department of Education trusts - the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, The Higher Learning Commission.

Thus there is a chain of trust.

Diploma mills come in two types, accredited and unaccredited. The accredited diploma mills get their accreditation from fake or otherwise invalid accreditation agencies.

The unaccredited diploma mills simply call themselves schools and claim authority to hand out degrees.

There are no federal laws that would unambiguously prohibit diploma mills, and the terms "university", "college", etc are not protected so anyone can use them for any purpose.

Some states have fairly tough laws that prevent diploma mills from claiming that state as their home, requiring accreditation from an institution recognized by the US Department of Education, for instance, before being able to award educational degrees.

This is not universal, though, so you end up with diploma mills setting up in states that do not have such protections. This helped initially, but then the internet became very popular, and diploma mills started extending their reach more aggressively outside their states.

In states where such mills are illegal, sometimes the degrees and use of them to promote yourself is also illegal. However it appears that these laws may be unconstitutional.


  • If you award fake diplomas, you can be prosecuted in some states.
  • If you promote yourself using a fake diploma you are unlikely to be prosecuted, but there are laws under which you could be prosecuted.
  • If you use legally protected terms requiring license in your state, such as doctor, lawyer, professional engineer, etc, you may be prosecuted under state laws.
  • Related and slightly closer to the specifics of the question would be the term "graduate engineer", which many states reserve to individuals having an ABET-accredited engineering degree, but not a license.
    – Ben Voigt
    Dec 9, 2015 at 4:58

First off- I'm not a lawyer.

My understanding is that in the US you generally cannot be prosecuted for claiming to have a PhD when you do not, or when that PhD was conferred by a diploma mill. Both of these actions are protected by the first amendment. However, you can be prosecuted when you lie for the purpose of personal gain.

Federal law and all 50 states have some notion of the crime of fraud. Fraud is generally defined to be deception for the purpose of personal gain. When you can prove deception you can build a criminal case, but where you can't prove a deception occurred it is much harder. This is why it's easy to find cases where someone fabricated credentials and was caught (e.g. claimed that Harvard gave them a degree when they in fact did not, and a simple call to Harvard verifies this). However, if you have a PhD from a diploma mill you can honestly say that you have a PhD, it just happens to be that the degree is worthless.

This is complicated by the fact that some people apparently believe (or can plausibly claim) that their diploma mill degrees are somewhat legitimate. There are a host of phoney rationales that these organizations use to mitigate peoples' sense of moral hazard. For example, "Your accumulated life experiences equate to a substantial amount of degree credit." It sounds reasonable to some people- especially since it's something that one would want to believe. Thus, someone may honestly believe that they have a Ph.D. and are an expert through the benefit of accumulated life experience.

I would compare this situation to the Stolen Valor laws in the US that attempt to punish people who falsely claim to have served in the military. The original law punished the act of falsely claiming you had military service, but was struck down by the supreme court on the basis that the first amendment protects speech even if it is a lie. (Some specific types of speech are excluded, such as lying under oath.) As a result, a revised version of the law was created that specifically punishes lying about military service for the purpose of personal gain.

Note that some states have passed additional laws specifically concerning or criminalizing diploma mills, or criminalizing the use of diploma mill degrees in certain contexts such as job applications. However, the majority of states have not.

What this all adds up to is that employers have to be diligent about tracking down and verifying people's credentials and asking the right questions. Consider the difference in specificity and potential for deception between the statements "I have a PhD." and "I have six years of postgraduate study in computer systems engineering that culminated in a dissertation." There are basic questions that could reveal a diploma mill applicant even if the interviewer didn't have an expert background in the topic. The questions "How long did you study for your PhD" or "How long were you a full-time student at your graduate university" or "Describe the degree requirements at your graduate institution" have a set of expected responses that can be followed-up upon if something sounds out of the ordinary.

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