May 16, 2001 -- You might think that a "love doctor" in Phoenix, a college professor in Howell, Mich., and a court administrator in Tucson, Ariz., would have impressive educations.
Both list Columbia State University on their resumes.
What their employers didn't know is that Columbia State is not a college or university at all. It was a diploma mill that shipped out phony certificates until federal agents shut the operation down in 1998.
As Good Morning America's consumer correspondent Greg Hunter first reported a few months ago, there are hundreds of diploma mills, organizations that pose as accredited schools, issuing degrees.
In his ongoing probe, Hunter has found several cases of people in high-profile jobs who purchased such degrees from Columbia State.
A Common and Bogus Link
"Columbia State did not exist. It was never even the tiniest bit close to real," said John Bear, an author who tracks so-called "diploma mills" and who has served as an expert witness for the FBI on the subject.
Bear estimates there are nearly 500 fake schools selling degrees on the Internet. One investigation found that thousands of degrees were sold to federal employees with everyone from congressional staff members, to NASA employees, to U.S. Customs and even Pentagon workers holding degrees from diploma mills, he said.
In the case of Columbia State, Bear says that even the school's brochure cover was fake. The building pictured on it is really a historic mansion outside of New York City. Columbia State was nothing more than a mail drop in Metarie, La. Its operators shipped diplomas from a warehouse in California.
"They never had a campus. They never had a faculty. They never required any work," Bear said. "Columbia State [was] totally, totally fraudulent."
Call Her Dr. Love?
Nevertheless, thousands of people have bought Columbia State degrees including Ruth Sucato, known as the "love doctor" on KNXV-TV, the ABC affiliate in Phoenix. Her job: dispensing advice to the lovelorn.
"In marriages we don't even know when verbal abuse is going on," she said in a recent edition of Sonoran Living.
The show identifies Sucato as a doctor. In reality, she's not a doctor, but she does have a legitimate master's degree in social work, and she is a licensed clinical social worker. The KNXV-TV Web site said that Sucato had a Ph.D in clinical psychology from Columbia State. The television station says it never checked her Ph.D.
Hunter questioned her.
"You have a doctorate that's basically phony and you go on the Web site and call yourself a doctor," he said.
"No I don't," she said. "I call myself a licensed clinical psychologist."
Asked if she thought it was fair for the Web site to call her Dr. Ruth Sucato, she agreed that it isn't.
And she told Hunter she wouldn't call herself doctor anymore.
A Ph.D in Seven Months?
Cleary College in Howell, Mich., is an accredited school where all the instructors are required to have a master's degree.But Hunter found one instructor who listed Columbia State on his resume.
Richard Shemetulskis has a legitimate bachelor's degree from Loyola University, and his resume shows 30 credits from masters programs at Loyola and Eastern Michigan universities, but he never finished either program. His master's and Ph.D are both listed as being from Columbia State.
When Hunter told Shemetulskis that Columbia State was shut down by the FBI in 1998, the college professor said he was unaware of that.
"I have no knowledge of that, you're telling me that for the first time," he said.
Shemetulskis says he thought Columbia State was accredited and claims he did all work required by the school. He told Hunter that he was able to get both a masters and Ph.D in only seven months for just $3,000.
"I had to submit a thesis and a dissertation to qualify because they would never issue a degree without those," he said. "I don't think I took a short cut, I think I took a reasonable alternative."
Bear wasn't buying it, however.
"There is no way that a person with a three-digit I.Q. can say that they aren't buying themselves a fake degree simply to fool other people," Bear says. "There's no way."
How did Shemetulskis get the job? College officials say they never checked his degree.
Court Administrator Read One Book
Diploma mill degrees are also a problem in government.
In Tucson, Ariz., court administrator Andrew Vesloski Jr. was hired last November. The Pima County Justice Web site says he has a bachelor's degree from Columbia State.
"According to the FBI, this was a diploma mill and it was shut down for fraud," Hunter told Vesloski.
"I wasn't aware of that and thank you for bringing it to my attention," he said.
Vesloski claims he had no idea Columbia State was fraudulent. He says he was given a degree for reading one book and writing a paper about his job experience. Experience that he claims is worthy of a college degree.
"I have over 700 hours of classroom management administration from the federal government … I was a senior contract administrator," he said.
When Hunter argued that neither activity represented a college degree, Vesloski begrudgingly agreed.
"If you want to split hairs you're absolutely right," he said.
Court officials never checked out Columbia State, even though Vesloski's job requires a valid degree from an accredited college.
When Hunter asked a Tucson judge if Vesloski could have gotten the job without a degree, the judge said no.
"If he did not have a degree he would not have been considered," the judge said.
Not a Federal Case
Many of the people who have degrees from diploma mills are getting raises for having the degrees. But Hunter found that the federal government has not done much about the problem.
Both the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Department of Education in Washington, D.C., refused to talk about the problem, saying it's not a priority even though Bear says degree fraud is costing taxpayers and corporations hundreds of millions of dollars every year.
"We've never had anything like this. We have an epidemic of fake degrees and credentials," Bear said. "People we count on in schools, in churches in business in courts, on television … it's an epidemic."
After Hunter's investigation, television station KNXV-TV took Sucato off the air and the general manager said they do not intend to put her back on.
School officials say Shemetulskis no longer teaches at Cleary College. And the court administrator for Pima County, Ariz., Andrew Vesloski Jr. has been suspended while officials investigate his case.
Hunter stresses that his investigation does not mean that all distance learning schools are shady. You can get an accredited degree online.
To find out which distance learning programs are legitimate, do an accurate background check, Hunter says. Bear has written a book called Bear's Guide to Earning Degrees by Distance Learning, which contains information about accredited schools.
At Cleary College in fact, a master's degree takes a lot of work. It costs $16,000 and takes 14 months. Distance-learning students spend almost every day online, whether they are actually in class or just preparing for class.
Good Morning America's Consumer Correspondent Greg Hunter and Brad Stone produced this story.