There are no laws in Washington or Idaho against selling, buying and using high school or university degrees from unaccredited institutions. Idaho does have a law making it illegal for unaccredited schools to specifically target Idaho residents.
In Washington, the operations may violate "unfair and deceptive business practices" provisions of the state's Consumer Protection Act, said Assistant Attorney General Steve Larsen. The act can include civil penalties.
"There is a red flag there," said Larsen, assigned to the Consumer Protection office in Seattle.
But many people who purchase bogus degrees know what they're doing, Larsen said, so they haven't been deceived. Instead, employers may see the degrees on job applications and not recognize they're bogus.
George Gollin, a University of Illinois physics professor, has extensively studied diploma mills and generated a Web site, now adopted by the state of Oregon. Randock and her operations are listed there.
Gollin earned his Ph.D. in physics from Princeton. He recently was offered a bachelor's, a master's and second doctorate in "systems engineering" for $4,400 by Parkwood University.
The Parkwood Web site later was closed down by the Federal Trade Commission, which labeled it a diploma mill. The FTC said Parkwood was providing credentials to individuals who could perpetuate fraud.
But as that site was shut down by the FTC, dozens of others popped up.
On one Web site last week, a religious-based operation offered to sell a "doctor of divinity" degree for $750 to candidates "who are called to the pastoral ministry."
The same operation, "Interfaith Degrees," said it would award an "honorary doctorate" to anyone who mailed in $500.
Many of the schools claim to be registered in Liberia, where many of that country's own schools are closed after four years of civil war.
"Attempting to profit from the conditions in Liberia is akin to removing the gold fillings from a helpless person," Gollin said.
Many of the online diploma mills claim they have obtained "accreditation," often from Liberia.
A handful have paid $50,000 to buy "accreditation" from the National Board of Education, which uses a Washington, D.C., post office box and says it is acting on behalf of the Liberian government, Gollin said.
St. Regis University claims to be accredited by the Liberian government. However, the Liberian Embassy recently denied the existence of any such accreditation, Gollin said.
In the United States, bona fide colleges and universities don't buy accreditation. It is done by auditing teams that set universal standards of excellence, allowing students in one state to transfer to schools in other states.
Gollin said he has examined Randock's Web sites, beginning with her "distance education" courses for real estate agents.
In November 2002, Randock was the registrant for branfordacademy.com, Gollin said.
Randock also has been the registrant for three other educational-sounding domains, including James Monroe University, created last January, Gollin said.
Mike Ball, associate director of Washington's Higher Education Coordinating Board, said loopholes in the state's laws allow the diploma mills to operate.
A school must have an actual building in the state to give the HEC Board jurisdiction, Ball said. State laws, written before the rapid advance of the Internet, don't consider if an online school's registrant lives in Washington.
Oregon is different.
Alan Contreras, with Oregon's Office of Degree Authorization, said that state has laws against setting up a bogus school or using a bogus degree as a credential, such as on a job application.
"In Washington, you can buy a degree for $500 in the morning and put it on your resume that same afternoon," Contreras said.
The FBI hasn't gone after a high-profile diploma-mill case since the 1980s when "DipScam" -- the code name for Diploma Scam -- involved a number of successful prosecutions for wire, mail and tax fraud.
The FBI and postal inspectors have conducted investigations in the past, but now consider diploma mills to be a lower-priority, nonviolent crime.
The Federal Trade Commission has some overlapping jurisdiction and may get involved when diploma mill degrees are fraudulently used to attract business.
"The FBI probably could do more, but with 9/11 and the terrorism threat, the landscape, the priorities have changed," said Allen Ezell, who was the FBI case agent for DipScam.
Ezell is now a vice president for corporate fraud for Wachovia Bank, based in Tampa, Fla. He is co-authoring a book, "Degree Mills," with Bear.
Asked to review the Branford and Liberty Prep sites, Ezell said they appeared to be diploma mills.
"Any entities that are associated with St. Regis and Robertstown is of doubtful quality," Ezell said.
Because of fewer prosecutions, diploma mills are flourishing, Ezell said.
Diploma mills thrive, in part, because of vanity. Some people want to say they have a high school degree, a bachelor's degree or even a Ph.D.
"Is the paper worth having?" Ezell said. "Probably not." •Bill Morlin can be reached at (509) 459-5444 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.