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'1,000% unacceptable': Marketplace confronts college professor about his fake degree

Toronto professor says his current and former employers checked his credentials

Eric Szeto, Nelisha Vellani - CBC News

September 16, 2017

Dubravko Zgrablic says he's taught at four post-secondary schools in Toronto. A Marketplace investigation reveals his master's degree in computer science from Almeda University is phoney. (CBC)

For more than a decade, Dubravko Zgrablic has pursued his "calling" by teaching thousands of students at several post-secondary institutions in Toronto.

He says those schools include Centennial College, the University of Toronto, Ryerson University and Seneca College, where, according to his LinkedIn profile, he currently teaches computer applications and project management courses.

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Ask him where he earned his master's degree in computer science, however, and he has trouble remembering the school's name.

"Forgetting those … things, I'm always messing up," he said. "Down in the states."

There was a long silence before two undercover Marketplace journalists posing as potential Seneca students reminded him: "Almeda."

"Almeda," he said, referring to Almeda University, which a Marketplace investigation has exposed as a fake online school, that sold fake degrees before recently going offline.

Marketplace obtained business records of a Pakistan-based company called Axact, considered the world's biggest diploma mill. Almeda University is one of dozens of phoney schools connected to the company. (CBC)

Contrary to the sales pitch on the former website, Almeda University, which was supposedly based out of Boise, Idaho, had no official accreditation and no faculty. It was simply a service where customers could trade "life experience" and money for an official-looking but phoney degree and transcript.

A key service in Almeda's scam was its department that verified degrees for any third parties, such as employers, inquiring about attendance. 

According to his LinkedIn profile, Zgrablic received his Almeda degree in 2004. He told the undercover Marketplace journalists it took him three months to complete, cost a few thousand dollars and required  "basically 11 phone exams."

"[The master's degree] mattered four times in my life," he said. "When I started working in two colleges and when I started working in two universities."

In the course of the same conversation, he mentioned his academic employers did check with Almeda about his master's degree.

"You have to provide the name of the institution, you provide their contact. They check directly with the institution," he said. "You are not involved in that process."

Diploma mill records

Marketplace's investigation discovered there are more than 800 Canadians who appear to have purchased phoney degrees, including engineers, nurses, and, as in Zgrablic's case, educators.

Producers obtained leaked business records of a Pakistan-based IT firm called Axact, considered the world's biggest diploma mill. With the help of former Axact employees, court documents and by piecing together digital clues online, the team identified more than 100 phoney online schools and accreditation bodies connected to Axact — including Almeda University.

"It was a fraud," said one former Axact employee who asked not to be identified due to safety concerns in Pakistan. "It was something fake."

Marketplace producers managed to get PhDs in biblical counselling and psychology from Almeda University without submitting a resume or doing any coursework.

Marketplace's PhD in biblical counselling — one of three phoney degrees producers purchased for a total of $1,550 US. (CBC)

In total, Marketplace purchased three PhDs (including one from Axact-affiliated Gatesville University) for $1,550 US.

Axact denies it owns or operates any education websites. Todd A. Holleman, Axact's U.S. lawyer, said the diploma mills were created by clients of Axact and that the company "does not condone or support any alleged wrongful or fraudulent conduct by its clients, who are independent businesses."

Schools respond

Marketplace took its findings about Zgrablic and Almeda University to the four schools where he says he's worked.

The University of Toronto wouldn't grant an interview. It provided a statement to Marketplace that doesn't explain the school's rationale for hiring Zgrablic, citing privacy reasons, and makes no mention of Almeda University

Ryerson University's statement shares some general details about the school's hiring process, but doesn't confirm Zgrablic is a former employee.

Centennial College, which employed Zgrablic from 2003 to 2010, says "Almeda was not a factor in the hiring decision," which stands to reason since he didn't obtain his Almeda degree until 2004. The school does say it verified Zgrablic's past education from Croatia and that, combined with his industry experience, earned him the job.

A response from Seneca College, Zgrablic's most recent employer, says the school can't comment on personnel matters due to privacy, but it takes its "hiring practices very seriously and like most post-secondary institutions" it takes "many factors into consideration, including unique industry experience when hiring."

"We have a process for verifying and vetting academic credentials."

Zgrablic's Linkedin profile says he has a bachelor's degree in computer science from the University of Zagreb. It also says he worked as an IT architect for IBM Global Services and as a senior systems administrator for Canadian Tire and several other companies.

Deb Matthews, Ontario's minister of advanced education and skills development, sent Marketplace a statement that says students work hard in the pursuit of a degree or diploma, and "the value of that effort and the integrity of their accreditation should not be undermined by those who teach them."

Allen Ezell, a former FBI agent who investigated diploma mills for decades, estimates half of new PhDs issued every year in the U.S. are fake. (CBC)

Diploma mills expert and former FBI agent Allen Ezell says schools must be held accountable for checking the academic credentials of their hires.

"What signal are they sending to the other faculty members and their students? They must set the example," he said. "If they're not going to vet their own people, who in the heck is?

"That's 1,000 per cent unacceptable."

'Almeda has never been real'

When Marketplace confronted Zgrablic about his credentials, he said he earned his master's before Almeda began selling "life experience" degrees.

Ezell says that's not possible.

"Almeda has never been real, it's never been legitimately ... accredited by a recognized entity in its life, period," the former FBI agent said.

Zgrablic said he didn't know the school was unaccredited and defended the 11 phone exams he took to get his master's. He said he had begun his post-grad in his home country of Croatia but never completed it, and the phone exams with Almeda University were "just a re-evaluation" of that previous coursework. 

He also denied saying he used his master's to gain employment at the four post-secondary institutions in Toronto, but Marketplace documented the conversation using hidden cameras.

Zgrablic declined to elaborate on his previous statements in a formal interview, instead deferring to Seneca College's public relations department.

He has since removed Almeda University from his LinkedIn profile.

Seneca College is still listed as his employer, but the school wouldn't confirm that's the case.

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