The New York Times ran a terrific investigative story about Axact. The main claim is that Axact, a Pakistani firm, ran a worldwide diploma mill scam. For what it is worth, Axact has responded to the article, though it’s response focuses mostly on supposed motives and doesn’t appear to directly rebut the claims. In any case, the following part of the story held special interest for me:
A more lucrative form of upselling involves impersonating American government officials who wheedle or bully customers into buying State Department authentication certificates signed by Secretary Kerry.
Such certificates, which help a degree to be recognized abroad, can be lawfully purchased in the United States for less than $100. But in Middle Eastern countries, Axact officials sell the documents—some of them forged, others secured under false pretenses—for thousands of dollars each.
“They would threaten the customers, telling them that their degrees would be useless if they didn’t pay up,” said a former sales agent who left Axact in 2013.
As I noted in my 2011 post on United States v. Goodyke, there’s a long history of misuse of apostilles and certificates of authentication in connection with diploma mills. The Permanent Bureau of the Hague Conference even drew up a report on the matter in connection with the 2009 meeting of the Special Commission.
What’s going on here? Here are a few thoughts:
- Sometimes it’s necessary to authenticate a diploma, either by apostille (if the Hague Apostille Convention applies) or by chain legalization. For example, when a person with a degree from a university in country A immigrates to country B and wants to use his degree to obtain some sort of professional credential or license, she may need to have the diploma authenticated. So the idea of selling apostilles or authentication certificates for diplomas is not just irrational.
- The Apostille Convention applies only to “public documents.” Because the issuance of apostilles (in the United States at least) is a purely ministerial function, there is little if any judicial precedent on what a “public document” is for these purposes. On the one hand, the drafters intended the term to have a broad application—indeed, to apply to “all documents other than documents signed by persons in their private capacity.” On the other hand, it’s clear that the question whether a document is a “public document” is to be determined by the law of the state of origin. According to the Handbook on the operation of the Convention:
In some States, an educational document may be considered to be a public document for the purposes of the Apostille Convention by virtue of the status of the issuing educational institution as either an administrative authority or accredited institution. In other States, the educational document may be considered a private document, in which case it will need to be certified before an Apostille is issued.
So there may be an issue in principle about whether diplomas issued by private universities, rather than public universities, are public documents. (I don’t know whether there is an issue in practice.
- In any case, if you do need an apostille, you can get one cheaply from the secretary of state or other competent authority in the relevant US state. If you need to do a chain legalization, the process is a little more complex. You will probably need to get a certificate from the appropriate state official, and then a certificate from the U.S. Department of State authenticating that first certificate, and then a certificate from the relevant foreign consulate authenticating the second certificate. Still, the costs are not high. In the case of diplomas, because it’s probably not appropriate to affix the apostille or other certificates to the diploma itself, in some cases the apostille or certifications may be affixed to a certified copy of the diploma. Incidentally, in states such as Massachusetts where certification of copies is a notarial function, affixing the apostille to the certified copy can solve the “public document” problem, because the notarial certificate is without question a public document, if the state of destination will accept authentication of the certified copy for its purposes.
- Companies that sell these certifications and apostilles are likely preying on unsuspecting people who attribute some magic value to stamps and sealing wax and who may not even need an apostille or certification. Consumers may be misled into thinking that the certifications attest to the bona fides of the degree that the diploma purports to confer, when in fact they merely attest that the the signatures and seals are authentic. And consumers who do need authenticated diplomas should be careful to make sure they are not being charged exorbitant prices for certificates that can be obtained easily and cheaply from the government.
In short: buyer beware! It’s baffling to me that folks could be taken in by a diploma mill scheme, but someone who doesn’t understand that there’s a problem with obtaining a diploma that doesn’t require the necessary coursework probably also won’t understand that adding a fancy-looking certificate to the diploma is likely a waste of money.