Consumer Health Digest #10-05

Your Weekly Update of News and Reviews
February 5, 2010

Consumer Health Digest is a free weekly e-mail newsletter edited by Stephen Barrett, M.D., with help from William M. London, Ed.D., M.P.H. It summarizes scientific reports; legislative developments; enforcement actions; news reports; Web site evaluations; recommended and nonrecommended books; and other information relevant to consumer protection and consumer decision-making.

Lancet retracts Wakefield article. The Lancet has retracted publication of a 1998 paper in which Dr. Andrew Wakefield and colleagues suggested that the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine might be linked to autism. The paper didn't declare that cause-and-effect had been demonstrated, but at the press conference announcing its publication, Wakefield attacked the triple vaccine; and he has continued to do so ever since. Subsequent studies have found no connections, but sensational publicity caused immunization rates in the UK to drop more than 10 percent and have left lingering doubts among parents worldwide. The Lancet retraction came five days after The British General Medical Council, which registers doctors in the United Kingdom, reported that Wakefield had acted dishonestly, irresponsibly, unethically, and callously in connection with the research project and its subsequent publication. The paper remains publicly visible, but the online version displays the word "RETRACTED" in bright red letters on every page of the PDF version. Autism Watch has further details.

Major diploma mill scheme shut down. Eight participants of a massive diploma-mill scheme have been convicted of conspiracy and wire fraud. Documents in the case indicate that from 1999 through 2005, Dixie Ellen Randock, Steven Karl Randock, Sr., their daughter Heidi Kae Lorhan, Roberta Lynn Markishtum, Kenneth Wade Pearson, Richard John Novak, Blake Alan Carlson, and Amy Leann Hensley operated an Internet-based diploma business that sold false and fraudulent academic products. The government investigation—called "Operation Gold Seal"—concluded that their business sold 10,815 fake credentials to 9,612 people in 131 countries for a total of $7,369,907. The products included "degrees" from nonexistent entities, counterfeit high school diplomas, fabricated college and graduate-level academic transcripts, and “professorships.” One investigator who posed as a retired Syrian military officer seeking an H1B visa was able to buy "degrees" that, if not detected, could conceivably help terrorists gain entry into the United States. Situations have also come to light in which people who held respectable jobs were discovered to have bogus degrees. Some may have believed that they were buying legitimate credentials that reflected knowledge and/or skills they acquired through experience. Others knew that the credentials were bogus but hoped that they would enhance their vocational status. The Spokesman-Review (Seattle, Washington) has published a complete list of buyers that can be searched by category. The list includes 130 people who are U.S. military personnel and at least 40 who are educators or U.S. government civilian employees.

The scheme's ringleaders, Steven and Dixie Randock each received a 3-year sentence to be followed by 3 years of court supervision. Steven was also ordered to forfeit his interest in over $500,000 in seized cash and various bank accounts, real property, and a 2001 Jaguar XK8. Lorhan, Markishtum, and Pearson also received prison sentences. Novak, Carlson, and Hensley, who cooperated with government investigators, were placed on 3 of years probation and ordered to perform community service. Credential Watch has additional information and links to relevant court documents.

Government action to break up the ring was assisted by George Gollin, Ph.D. a University of Illinois physics professor who has worked relentlessly against credential fakery for many years. Wired Magazine has published a glowing account of his work. [Wolman D. Fraud U: Toppling a bogus-diploma empire. Wired, Dec 21, 2009] Gollin's Web site contains a wealth of additional information, and he is writing a book about the problem. WHNT-TV has investigated how 19 soldiers, defense contractors, and civilians bought fake diplomas in order to get promotions.

Bill to attack diploma mills introduced. Congressman Tim Bishop (D-NY) has introduced legislation to combat the diploma mill problem. The Diploma and Accreditation Integrity Protection Act (HR 4535) would:

The Government Accountability Office has issued three reports on diploma mills, including one in which it reported that 463 Federal employees held degrees from diploma mills and other nonaccredited universities and that that federal agencies had paid more than $150,000 in tuition payments to diploma mills and other nonaccredited schools on behalf of federal employees. In announcing the bill, Bishop indicated that weak laws and technological advances have enabled the problem to worsen. [Rep. Bishop introduces bill to stop diploma mills. News release, Jan 28, 2010]

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This page was revised on February 7, 2010.