Notarization: The Trojan Horse Approach to Gaining Credibility for a Diploma Mill Diploma

pwu diplomaNo·ta·rize (nō′tə-rīz′): To certify or attest to (the validity of a signature on a document, for example) as a notary public. It’s often what one bureaucracy requires of another to prove that a document is authentic. This is one of the many fee-based services offered by embassies and consulates general in Vietnam. What if the document being notarized is not authentic?

Here’s a hypothetical case. A man walks into Embassy X and requests that his diploma mill Ph.D. diploma be notarized. The Embassy notarizes said document because “Dr. Cuong” can prove – with proper ID – that it is indeed his (fake) diploma and sign an affidavit confirming that fact. It matters not that it was “earned” (i.e., bought) from a notorious US-based diploma mill that has reared its ugly head in the Vietnamese media in recent years.  What’s wrong with this picture?

[According to Transparency International, corruption in education is particularly damaging because it endangers a country’s social, economic and political future.  The use of fake educational credentials is a clear-cut example of corruption.]

After paying a modest fee, producing ID and signing on the dotted line, “Dr. Cuong” leaves the Embassy a happy man.  He has in his possession an educational credential that – at least on paper – has more credibility and recognition than it did when he entered. Why check on the accreditation status of “Unaccredited US University” when the diploma was notarized by a well-known foreign mission?

This, of course, is why six (6) of the search engine terms that bring netizens to my blog are where can i buy a phd.  Most of these “consumers” are what are known as willing co-conspirators.  Question:  Given the fact that Vietnam’s Ministry of Education and Training (MoET) has clamped down on the use of “degrees” from unaccredited foreign institutions, what will “Dr. Cuong” do with his diploma mill degree?  Your thoughts? 

MAA

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Sự thật về các chương trình giáo dục Mỹ tại Việt Nam

This article, entitled “The Truth About American Education Programs in Vietnam” (Một Thế Giới, reflects the growing sophistication about US higher education as a service sector export.  As I am fond of saying, the US exports some of the world’s best and worst higher education.  The term “officially accredited” covers a broad spectrum of institutions in terms of quality encompassing the good, the bad and the ugly.

The overwhelming majority of regionally accredited institutions are public and private nonprofits while most nationally accredited schools are for-profit.  (Contrary to what most NA representatives would have you believe, comparing RA with NA schools is like comparing apples and oranges in terms of quality and the rigor of the accreditation process.)

Then there are the rogue providers, i.e., unaccredited schools, mostly for-profit companies and many based in California.  They range from those that provide a substandard service to those that sell credentials (i.e., diploma mills).  Bottom line for consumers, i.e., students and parents:  Buyer Beware!

If you don’t read Vietnamese, you can get a rough idea of the content using Google Translate or a similar program.

MAA


 

Sinh viên theo học chương trình của trường Broward College, một trường được kiểm định vùng.(Một Thế Giới)
Sinh viên theo học chương trình của trường Broward College, một trường được kiểm định vùng.(Một Thế Giới)
Giữa hàng loạt chương trình giáo dục từ các trường đại học Mỹ đang quảng cáo rầm rộ tại Việt Nam, có rất nhiều chương trình chưa được kiểm định, chất lượng thấp. Người học cần tỉnh táo phân biệt để tránh mất tiền bạc, thời gian cho những tấm bằng kém chất lượng, không có giá trị.

Sức hấp dẫn của giáo dục Mỹ

Nền giáo dục Mỹ luôn có sức hấp dẫn so với các nền giáo dục khác tại Việt Nam. Với nền giáo dục có lịch sử lâu đời, Mỹ là quốc gia có nhiều trường đại học và cao đẳng uy tín nhất thế giới.
Theo danh sách các trường đại học danh tiếng nhất thế giới 2013 của tạp chí Time Higher Education – tạp chí về giáo dục hàng đầu của Anh, trong 10 trường hàng đầu có đến 7 trường của Mỹ (1).
Với chất lượng giáo dục được khẳng định cùng các lựa chọn đa dạng, việc theo học tại các trường đại học và cao đẳng của Mỹ giúp cho sinh viên có thể tiếp thu được nhiều kiến thức thực tế và quý báu. Không những vậy, bằng cấp được đánh giá cao bởi các nhà tuyển dụng cũng là một trong những lợi thế của nền giáo dục Mỹ.
Theo báo cáo Trao đổi Giáo dục Quốc tế Open Doors 2013 do Bộ Ngoại giao Hoa Kỳ và Bộ Giáo dục Hoa Kỳ tổ chức tại TP.HCM ngày 13.11.2013, sinh viên Việt Nam tại Mỹ tăng 3,4% và đạt con số 16.098 sinh viên trong năm học 2012-2013. Con số này đã đưa Việt Nam trở thành nước đứng hàng thứ tám trong số các nước có đông sinh viên ở Mỹ.
Bà Rena Bitter - Tổng Lãnh sự Hoa Kỳ công bố số liệu mới nhất của Open Doors về số lượng du học sinh Việt Nam tại Mỹ (Một Thế Giới)
Bà Rena Bitter – Tổng Lãnh sự Hoa Kỳ công bố số liệu mới nhất của Open Doors về số lượng du học sinh Việt Nam tại Mỹ (Một Thế Giới)

Bên cạnh các chương trình đào tạo trực tiếp tại nước Mỹ, các chương trình đào tạo bậc đại học của Mỹ cũng xuất hiện rất nhiều tại Việt Nam dưới nhiều hình thức như đầu tư trực tiếp mở cơ sở đào tạo, liên kết đào tạo tại chỗ, đào tạo trực tuyến. Những hình thức đào tạo này đáp ứng tốt nhu cầu được tiếp cận với nền giáo dục tiên tiến của Mỹ với chi phí hợp lý nên được rất nhiều sinh viên tại Việt Nam lựa chọn.

Vàng thau lẫn lộn

Mặc dù các chương trình của Mỹ được quảng bá tại Việt Nam rất đa dạng nhưng không phải chương trình nào cũng có chất lượng tốt, được kiểm định bởi các tổ chức giáo dục uy tín.
Tại Mỹ, bất kỳ ai cũng có thể thành lập tổ chức để kinh doanh ngay cả trong giáo dục, miễn là chấp hành đầy đủ các nghĩa vụ về thuế và lệ phí cho Chính phủ. Do đó, các trường đại học tư được thành lập rất nhiều và không ít trong số đó hoạt động chỉ vì lợi nhuận.
Việc đánh giá kiểm định của trường đại học được xem là một trong những bước cơ bản nhất để xác định chất lượng của chương trình học cũng như giá trị của tấm bằng.
Các trường đại học và cao đẳng tại Mỹ được phân loại thành 3 loại kiểm định: kiểm định vùng (regional accreditation), kiểm định quốc gia (national accreditation) và kiểm định chuyên ngành (specialized accreditation).
Ngoại trừ kiểm định chuyên ngành chỉ tập trung vào một số chương trình chuyên biệt, 2 loại còn lại được xem là 2 loại kiểm định phổ biến nhất. Loại kiểm định của trường sẽ phản ánh các đặc điểm về xu hướng đào tạo, giá trị được công nhận cũng như chất lượng của tấm bằng do trường cấp (2).
Để xác định một trường thuộc loại kiểm định nào có thể nhìn vào tổ chức kiểm định trường đó để biết. Mỹ hiện có 6 tổ chức kiểm định vùng, khoảng 54 tổ chức kiểm định quốc gia được công nhận. Đây đều là các tổ chức tư nhân độc lập, được Bộ Giáo dục Hoa Kỳ (USDE) và Hội đồng Kiểm định Giáo dục Đại học (CHEA) công nhận.
Để được các tổ chức kiểm định này công nhận, các trường phải trải qua sự đánh giá thường xuyên về nhiều mặt như giáo trình, đội ngũ giáo viên, cơ sở vật chất, dịch vụ hỗ trợ sinh viên…
Tại Việt Nam, phần lớn các chương trình đào tạo Mỹ hiện tại là của các trường thuộc loại kiểm định quốc gia hoặc không có kiểm định, có rất ít chương trình thuộc loại kiểm định vùng.
Theo như thống kê năm 2012 của tiến sĩ Mark Ashwill – nguyên Giám đốc Viện giáo dục quốc tế (IIE) Mỹ ở Việt Nam, khoảng 22 cơ sở giáo dục chưa được kiểm định và khoảng 13 cơ sở thuộc loại kiểm định quốc gia của Mỹ đã có mặt tại Việt Nam dưới nhiều hình thức (3).
Các trường thuộc loại kiểm định vùng được xem là tiêu chuẩn vàng khi so với 2 loại còn lại vì phần lớn các trường này hoạt động không vì mục đích lợi nhuận nên yêu cầu đầu vào thường cao hơn, chương trình học có tính học thuật cao hơn, bằng cấp được công nhận rộng rãi bởi các nhà tuyển dụng và dễ dàng chuyển tiếp để học lên cao hơn tại các trường danh tiếng khác.
Theo số liệu từ USDE, trong năm 2012 tại Mỹ có khoảng 4.700 cơ sở cấp bằng thì có khoảng 85% trong số đó thuộc loại kiểm định vùng (4).

Tại Việt Nam, hiện tại có trường Broward College và Troy University là những trường hiếm hoi của Mỹ thuộc loại kiểm định vùng đang hoạt động. Broward College là một trong 10 trường đại học cộng đồng tốt nhất của Mỹ trong năm 2013 theo danh sách của Tổ chức Nghiên cứu Giáo dục Aspen Institute.

Trong khi đó, các trường thuộc loại kiểm định quốc gia đa phần là hoạt động vì lợi nhuận nên không đòi hỏi đầu vào quá khắt khe, chương trình của các trường này chủ yếu tập trung vào dạy nghề. Do đó học viên khó có thể chuyển tiếp lên học cao hơn tại các trường lớn khác và các nhà tuyển dụng thường không đánh giá cao loại kiểm định này như kiểm định vùng.
Một số trường thuộc loại kiểm định quốc gia đã có mặt tại Việt Nam là trường Lincoln University liên kết với Đại học Công nghệ TP.HCM (Hutech), trường Columbia Southern University liên kết với Trung tâm hợp tác đào tạo Quốc tế thuộc Trung ương Hội khuyến học Việt Nam.
Các trường thuộc 1 trong 3 loại kiểm định trên được xem là hợp pháp và được công nhận bởi USDE và CHEA. Nếu vẫn chưa được xếp vào 1 trong 3 loại kiểm định trên hoặc được kiểm định bởi các tổ chức kiểm định không thuộc các tổ chức được công nhận bởi USDE và CHEA, trường vẫn có thể hoạt động nhưng chất lượng của trường và tấm bằng sẽ không được USDE và CHEA công nhận.
Tại Mỹ, phần lớn các trường như vậy là các trường “dỏm” chuyên sản xuất bằng kém chất lượng (diploma mill), hoạt động thuần túy chỉ vì lợi nhuậ, cũng đồng nghĩa với việc sinh viên sẽ phí công sức, tiền bạc để nhận được những tấm bằng không có giá trị.
Tại Việt Nam, số lượng các trường không có kiểm định xuất hiện rất nhiều do đánh vào tâm lý ham lấy bằng Mỹ trong thời gian ngắn với chi phí thấp và sự thiếu thông tin của một bộ phận người dân.
Điểm dễ nhận diện của các trường này là yêu cầu đầu vào rất thấp, chương trình được dạy online, thời lượng yêu cầu thường ít hơn các chương trình truyền thống tương đương, khối lượng bài tập và yêu cầu nghiên cứu với sinh viên nhẹ, học phí rẻ hơn.
Một số trường không có kiểm định đã xuất hiện tại Việt Nam gồm trường Irvine University liên kết với Đại học Quốc gia Hà Nội, trường Frederick Taylor University liên kết với trường Kinh tế Công nghệ Việt Lào (LAVI EDU)…

Cần cẩn trọng trong việc lựa chọn trường

Giữa hàng loạt trường đại học Mỹ quảng cáo tại thị trường Việt Nam, người học cần suy xét thật kỹ trước khi chọn lựa chương trình học. Các trường không có kiểm định nên được loại ra khỏi danh sách lựa chọn, nếu người học thực sự cần một tấm bằng có thể sử dụng được.
Việc theo học các trường này hầu như sẽ chỉ lãng phí thời gian và tiền bạc của học viên. Trường hợp điển hình là cách đây vài năm, các học viên theo học chương trình thạc sĩ của đại học Irvine tại Việt Nam, vốn là một trường không có kiểm định đã phải một phen khốn khổ khi phát hiện ra trường này là trường không có kiểm định, bằng cấp không được các tổ chức giáo dục uy tín công nhận.
Đối với các trường kiểm định quốc gia và kiểm định vùng, việc chọn lựa thường tùy thuộc vào nhu cầu trong tương lai, cũng như khả năng tài chính của người học. Nếu người học chỉ cần tấm bằng với chi phí thấp để làm việc ở những nơi không đòi hỏi bằng cấp tốt, hoặc không có nhu cầu chuyển lên học cao hơn tại các trường danh tiếng thì các trường kiểm định quốc gia là một lựa chọn thích hợp.
Tuy nhiên, nếu mục đích của người học là một tấm bằng có giá trị học thuật cao được các nhà tuyển dụng công nhận rộng rãi, hoặc có ý định chuyển tiếp lên học cao hơn thì các trường kiểm định vùng là lựa chọn duy nhất.

Thạc sĩ Phúc Nguyễn (Trường kinh doanh Shidler, Đại học Hawai tại Manoa)

  1. http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/world-university-rankings/2013/reputation-ranking
  2. http://www.chea.org/pdf/fund_accred_20ques_02.pdf
  3. https://markashwill.com/2012/02/13/new-the-dishonor-roll-of-u-s-rogue-providers-in-vietnam/ & https://markashwill.com/2012/02/13/nationally-accredited-u-s-institutions-with-a-vietnam-connection/
  4. http://www.geteducated.com/diploma-mills-police/college-degree-mills/156-regional- or-national-accreditation

2013 in Blogging

2013 in Blogging (final)

Thanks to the annual WordPress wrap-up, I’m happy to share with you the following information about blog traffic last year.

The busiest day of the year was December 2nd.  The most popular post that day was Education Companies in Vietnam: Take a Walk on the Wild Side (Part I), including 130 Facebook shares to date.  (Don’t miss Part II, too!)

It’s interesting to note that three of the top five posts were written in 2010, 2011 and 2012.  I can explain the popularity of some posts; others are a mystery.  “Corruption Sans Borders” was about one of the hottest (and most infuriating) stories of 2013 in our industry involving corruption in the U.S. Consulate General in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC).  The two-part series post about “education companies” attracted some attention because of some of the issues raised, including the unethical business practices of many players and the broader issue of corruption in education, which the Vietnamese government is addressing slowly but surely.  Student visas are always a popular topic and the majority of Vietnamese undergraduates in the U.S. are enrolled in community colleges.  About the sale of “accredited overseas phds” – some are actually to looking to buy while others are simply looking for information about the topic.

Top Five Posts

top5

Broward College in Vietnam (April 2012)

where can i buy an accredited overseas phd? (January 2011)

Of Student Visas & Community Colleges (November 2010)

Education Companies in Vietnam: Take a Walk on the Wild Side (Part I) (November 2013)

Corruption Sans Borders: U.S. Visas for Sale in Ho Chi Minh City (June 2013)

In all, there were visitors from 171 countries (!) with most coming from the U.S.  Vietnam and the UK were not far behind.  This may be the year that I unveil a Vietnamese language blog, time permitting.

MAA

Education Companies in Vietnam: Take a Walk on the Wild Side (Part II)

Note:  Follow this link to read the first post in this two-part series.

Due Diligence

Some advice to my foreign higher education colleagues:  don’t trust any of the come-ons or be seduced by the slick lines in (sometimes) passable English that arrive in your inboxes on a regular basis.  Do your homework, check references, and find out who’s really behind the keyboard on the other side of the world.  Due diligence now will save you time, money and frustration later.

Rising Expectations

There is an encouraging trend of rising consumer expectations.  More and more parents and students are becoming educated consumers.  This means that there is both official (i.e., government) and grassroots (i.e., consumer) pressure for companies to become better than they are.  Competition and effective official oversight will take care of the rest.

Educational Credentials:  Why Earn One When You Can Buy It? 

diploma-mill-graphic-1At the extreme end of the dishonesty and cheating continuum are companies that simply and shamelessly sell educational credentials, local and international, from diplomas and transcripts to language exam certificates.  Whatever you want or need, the black market has.  One of the reasons that a sizable contingent of netizens visit my blog, An International Educator in Vietnam, is not to find useful information or enlightenment; they’re in the hunt for a fake academic degree.  How do I know this?  Because I often see search engine terms such as “buying phd overseas,” “harvard university diplomas for sale,” “buying an accredited degree,” and, for those ambitious cheats who are in a real hurry, “email instant doctorate degree.”

One enterprising yet misguided individual set up a company called Realdegree Company, a dictionary definition of oxymoronic, with ties to Ho Chi Minh City (i.e., website registration) and British Columbia, Canada.  You can buy an associate’s degree for $599 or a bachelor’s degree for $899, including a 25% discount!  Choices included quite a hodgepodge of institutions such as Harvard, Yale, Columbia, the “University of Phonix,” Troy University, UCLA, Stanford, and “Kenstate University,” among many others.  One of my observations in a related blog post was Just pray your current or prospective employer doesn’t check on the authenticity of your spanking new – and very fake – sheepskinDegree verification services, anyone?

Six years ago, the Vietnam Ministry of Education and Training required all Vietnamese foreign degree holders to have their diplomas recognized by the Bureau of Testing and Education Quality Assurance in order to pursue further education in Vietnam through Decision 77.  A recent amendment called “Circular 26,” requires foreign degree holders to submit other evidence of overseas study.  A year ago this month, Decree 73, which regulates foreign partnerships and cross-border programs, was approved by Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung and implemented.

In Conclusion…

In recent years, the Vietnamese government, through the Ministry of Education and Training, has made considerable progress in addressing the havoc wrought by the unholy trinity of unscrupulous education agents, foreign rogue providers (i.e., unaccredited schools) and the sale of fake educational credentials.  The long-term challenge will be enforcement of new rules and regulations.  As John Ditty, chairman of KPG in Vietnam and Cambodia, noted somewhat understatedly at a recent presentation for business leaders in Hanoi, “Fraud in Vietnam presents an imminent danger not to be neglected.”

MAA

Education Companies in Vietnam: Take a Walk on the Wild Side (Part I)

no cheatingIn Vietnam, where cheating is a national pastime and ethical business practices are in dangerously short supply, the world of educational consulting is no exception.  EducationUSA fantasies notwithstanding, the reality is that most parents and students work with an education agent instead of applying directly to U.S. (and other foreign) colleges and universities, as in other Asian countries.

Another reality is that most education agents are substandard in terms of quality and ethical standards.  Let’s face it – anyone can create a Google Sites website, set up a Facebook account, hang out a sign and begin the frantic search for customers.  Unfortunately, not everyone has the requisite education, experience, standards and moral compass to do it the right way and succeed in the long-term.

Whatever It Takes?

In what has become an intensely competitive market (e.g., there are 160 educational consultancies in Hanoi alone), many companies attempt to secure some kind of competitive advantage, any kind of competitive advantage, by hook or by crook.  This runs the gamut from cheating one’s customers (customer as easy mark instead of king or queen), facilitating fraud on the part of their customers (e.g., encouraging the use of and even supplying fraudulent documents such as fake bank statements and academic transcripts in the visa application process) to copying other companies services lock, stock and barrel.  In Vietnam, wholesale and shameless imitation is not the sincerest form of flattery.

Why Create When You Can Copy?

The prevailing mentality is why invest elbow grease when you can copy and paste?  Of course, copying and executing are two completely different things – just like saying something don’t make it so.  (I’m reminded of a quote by Ray Kroc of McDonald’s fame:  My attitude was that competition can try to steal my plans and copy my style.  But they can’t read my mind; so I’ll leave them a mile and a half behind”.  From Grinding It Out: The Making Of McDonald’s.)

While I like to see new companies created, especially those that have something NEW to offer the market, I’d prefer to see them do it the old-fashioned way by adhering to a set of ethical standards not by cheating.  At the end of the day, ethical business practices translate into good business.  In this industry there are many opportunities to do well and do good.

Innovation Over Imitation

time for changeMy advice to the wannabes – innovate don’t imitate!  Vietnam will not rise in the global economic food chain unless there is more innovation across-the-board.  Chances are, you don’t have the education, experience and network to outperform your competition, which means you’ll always be a step or two behind.  Chances are, the hopes and dreams of today’s business license approval and grand opening will end up as tomorrow’s old news and bittersweet memories.  Vietnam’s economy continues to struggle with more bankruptcies than new businesses being created.  According to a Ministry of Planning and Investment report, there were 15,839 enterprises that suspended operation or declared bankruptcy in the first quarter of 2013 compared to 15,707 new businesses.  I expect this trend to continue for into 2014.  One of the issues that will ultimately hold Vietnam back is this penchant for copying and cheating.  It is innovation that will take Vietnam to the next level and help to liberate it from the dreaded middle income trap.

Agents Behaving Badly:  The Times They Are A-Changin’!

logo-moet210px_enParents are desperately looking for companies they can trust, that will treat them with respect and not cheat them of their time and money.  There’s a reason why this is such a hot-button issue  in U.S. higher education and why the Vietnamese government is attempting to regulate this industry by imposing certain criteria that companies must meet, including requiring mandatory training and certification for advisers.  According to Decision 05/2013/QD-TTg, proposed by the Minister of Education and Training (MoET) and issued by the Prime Minister on 15 January 2013, study abroad education consultancies have to meet the following requirements effective 10 March 2013.

  1. companies must have on deposit VND 500 million ($23,800) in a commercial bank; and
  2. owners and agents must have a university qualification, be proficient in at least one foreign language and be certified by MoET.

In addition, education consultancies must publicize all information about schools in foreign countries, among other requirements.  Local departments of education and training (DoET) are responsible for implementing this decision, which is happening slowly but surely nationwide.  As with all new approaches, however, it will take a while before the “Wild West” becomes less wild, less greedy and more responsive to the needs and demands of its customers and higher education partners.  But this type of certification is a step in the right direction.

MAA

Follow this link to read the second post in this series.

FSO Michael T. Sestak Pleads Guilty in Visa Fraud-Bribery Case, Faces 19-24 Years in Prison

Reposted from cropped-diplopndit_banner2012_-900x257_b– Domani Spero

On November 6, USDOJ announced that Michael T. Sestak, the former Nonimmigrant Visa Section Chief at the US Consulate General in Ho Chi Minh City had pleaded guilty to “receiving more than $3 million in bribes” in exchange for U.S. visas.  The Government alleged that the visa scheme had netted more than $9 million in bribes (see related posts below) and that Mr. Sestak had personally received over $3 million in proceeds of the conspiracy, which he laundered through China into Thailand. No sentencing date has been set but Mr. Sestak faces 19-24 years in prison under federal sentencing guidelines.

Related posts:

Via USDOJ:

WASHINGTON  A U.S. Foreign Service Officer, Michael T. Sestak, 42, pled guilty today to conspiracy, bribery, and money laundering charges in a scheme in which he accepted more than $3 million in bribes to process visas for non-immigrants seeking entry to the United States.

The guilty plea, which took place in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, was announced by U.S. Attorney Ronald C. Machen Jr. and U.S. Department of State Diplomatic Security Service Director Gregory B. Starr.

Sestak pled guilty before the Honorable John D. Bates to one count each of conspiracy to commit bribery and visa fraud and to defraud the United States, bribery of a public official, and conspiracy to engage in monetary transactions in property derived from illegal activity. No sentencing date was set. Under federal sentencing guidelines, the applicable range for the offenses is 235 to 293 months in prison.

Under the plea agreement, Sestak has agreed to the forfeiture of the proceeds of the crimes, which includes the sale of nine properties that he purchased in Thailand with his ill-gotten gains. He also has agreed to cooperate in a continuing federal investigation.

“Today Michael Sestak admitted taking millions of dollars in bribes to issue visas to allow nearly 500 foreign nationals to enter the United States,” said U.S. Attorney Machen.  “This Foreign Service Officer corrupted the integrity of a process designed to screen visitors to the United States, a process that obviously has implications for our national security.  His motivation for betraying his oath of office was cold, hard cash, as he personally received more than $3 million in this visa-for-cash scam, much of which he funneled into the purchase of nine properties in Thailand.  Mr. Sestak has now accepted responsibility for his conduct and is cooperating with federal law enforcement in this continuing investigation.”

“The Department of State became aware of potential visa improprieties in Vietnam and immediately referred the allegations to the Diplomatic Security Service (DS) to investigate, said Director Starr, of the Diplomatic Security Service. “DS worked collaboratively with the State Department Bureau of Consular Affairs to identify irregularities in the visa process which allowed agents and consular officials to pursue investigative leads and develop the evidence which led to Mr. Sestak’s guilty plea today.  This case demonstrates how cooperation with DS partners in the region allowed the Department of Justice to pursue charges where Vietnamese citizens were victimized by individuals guided by greed.”

Sestak was arrested on May 13, 2013, and has been in custody ever since. Four others have been charged with taking part in the conspiracy. They include Binh Vo, 39, and his sister, Hong Vo, 27, both American citizens who had been living in Vietnam; Binh Vo’s wife, Anhdao Dao Nguyen, 30, a Vietnamese citizen; and Truc Tranh Huynh, 29, a Vietnamese citizen.

Hong Vo was arrested in May 2013 and Huynh was arrested the following month. Binh Vo was arrested in September 2013. Nguyen remains at large, and a warrant has been issued for her arrest.  Huynh pled guilty on Oct. 16, 2013, to one count of visa fraud and is awaiting sentencing. Binh Vo and Hong Vo have pled not guilty to charges and are held without bond pending trial.

Sestak was the Non-Immigrant Visa Chief in the Consular Section of the U.S. Consulate in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam from August 2010 to September 2012.  His responsibilities included reviewing visa applications, conducting in-person interviews of visa applicants, and issuing visas when appropriate. While employed at the State Department, Sestak held a sensitive position.

In pleading guilty, Sestak admitted that he and Binh Vo met in Ho Chi Minh City in 2010 and began a personal friendship. They ultimately came up with a plan to obtain money in exchange for facilitating the approval of non-immigrant visas from Vietnam to the United States. Sestak conspired with other U.S. citizens and Vietnamese citizens who worked to recruit customers to the visa scheme. Before they appeared at the consulate for visa interviews, Sestak would be informed of the identities of foreign nationals who agreed to pay money in exchange for obtaining visas. He then attempted to issue a visa to each foreign national who had agreed to pay for obtaining a visa, often disregarding the veracity of the information on the application.

Sestak admitted that between February 2012 and September 2012, he caused visas to be approved for people whose applications were part of the scheme.  Payments made by applicants to the conspirators in exchange for visas ranged from $15,000 to $70,000.  Many of the individuals who received visas had been previously denied visas for a variety of reasons.

The entire scheme generated at least $9,780,000.  Of this, Sestak personally received over $3 million in proceeds of the conspiracy, which he laundered through China into Thailand. In an attempt to hide the illegal proceeds of the scheme, Sestak purchased nine real estate properties in Thailand worth over $3 million.  As part of his plea agreement, Sestak agreed to sell these properties and forfeit the proceeds in order to satisfy a portion of the money judgment of at least $6 million that will be entered against him.

Looking forward to hearing what happens to Mr. Sestak’s alleged co-conspirators.  And may his cooperation with the continuing investigation results in tracking down all the fraudulent visa cases he issued and subsequent deportation of those involved.

Also, I don’t think we’ve ever seen the maximum penalty of 24 years among the rotten FSO cases we’ve reviewed.  One of the more notorious visa fraud scandal involving an FSO was that of Thomas Patrick Carroll, a former vice consul at US Embassy Georgetown in Guyana who was arrested in 2000.  He was arrested for selling 800 visas at reportedly US$10,000 – US$15,000 each.  Mr. Carroll did not invest his ill gotten wealth in real estate but according to reports kept some of it in gold bars.  The court originally sentenced Mr. Carroll to 21 years imprisonment in 2002. The prison term was reduced on appeal to 11 years and he was released from prison this past summer.

Corruption Sans Borders: U.S. Visas for Sale in Ho Chi Minh City

mike sestak
Photo from a 3 May 2012 US Consulate General, HCMC, Vietnam news brief entitled “EducationUSA Hosts Student Visas Session”: “NIV Chief Mike Sestak talked about student visas.”

Say it ain’t so, Mike!  Michael Sestak, the former NIV (Non-Immigrant Visa) chief in the US Consulate General in HCMC, got caught with his hand in the cookie jar.  To paraphrase a verse from the The Good Book:  greed and arrogance goeth before a fall.  Apparently, his generous foreign service officer salary and the various goodies that went with it were not enough.  (His salary – after taxes – was $7,500 per month, or 90k a year, from his positions as a Foreign Service Officer and a reservist in the US Navy.)  He yielded to temptation and sinned to the tune of at least several million dollars.  So much for incorruptible US government employees.

The estimated money that Sestak “earned” from his extra services, above and beyond the call of duty and the bounds of legality, is what the Department of State’s Keystone Cops (aka Diplomatic Security Service, or DSS) were able to trace. There’s a lot more floating around in the form of cold, hard cash and, possibly, gold bars, and other hard assets. It’s a pleasant thought for Sestak to contemplate as he serves his sentence of up to 20 years in a federal pen.

So while Mike was preaching about the holy trinity of the student visa process (1. be a bona fide student; 2. have the ability to pay; and 3. have plans to return to your home country after graduation or an OPT experience), the only criterion for him was the ability to pay, not for study and living expenses in the US but for the visa itself.  Unfettered free market capitalism practiced by someone who was supposed to serve as a gatekeeper.

In the wise and eloquent words of my friend, SC: This must be a huge temptation for those in strategic jobs with no sense of a moral compass. Arbitrary political borders married to supply & demand have a way of ruining careers while fueling the general citizenry’s cynicism. Indeed. Of course, given the virtually non-existent coverage to date in the US mainstream media, not many US citizens are aware of this crime. While the scandal has received extensive coverage in the Vietnamese and English language media in Vietnam, the first major coverage in the US of which I’m aware is this CNN article, which appeared yesterday (5 June):
U.S. Foreign Service officer charged in Vietnam visa fraud case.

Sorry, Mike.  You may have the kind of intelligence required to pass the Foreign Service Exam but you’re as bright as a 10-watt bulb when it comes to white-collar crime.  How you and your co-conspirators thought you could get away with this is beyond comprehension.  A precocious ten-year old could have nailed you on charges of visa fraud, bribery and money-laundering.  Y’all know the expression:  Follow the money.  Add to that some search warrants to access Mike’s Gmail and Yahoo! accounts and those of his co-conspirators and, voila, case solved!

Speaking of the Internet, take a gander at the website of the Consulate General of the United States, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam and do a search for “Mike Sestak.”  Result?  Your search did not match any documents.  He disappeared almost overnight or, to be more precise, in the weeks since this story broke.  Thank God for the Wayback Machine: Internet Archive.  You can delete, but you can’t erase, the cyber equivalent of “you can run, but you can’t hide.”

Golden Rules for White-Collar Criminals (aka White-Collar Crime for Dummies)

Here are some golden rules for other consular officers who are tempted to abuse their positions of authority and trust, those  “in strategic jobs with no sense of a moral compass.”

Student Visas (NAFSA)Rule #1:  Don’t get too greedy.  Watch the percentages.  Make sure your issuance rate is not a blinking red light or a screaming police siren, pun intended.  Denial rates of 8.2% and 3.8% at a high fraud post are an engraved invitation to DSS to peek behind the curtain.  Sestak might as well have tattooed his forehead with this come-on and confession:  “Kiss me.  I’m a visa scam artist.”

Rule #2:  If you’ve followed Rule #1, don’t include too many co-conspirators.  It’s the converse of “the more the merrier.”  Each one is a potential liability and likely to end up in an affidavit and a court of law testifying against YOU.  Squeeze ’em and they’ll spill the beans in a heartbeat.  (Loyalty does have its limits; self-preservation is what it’s all about.)

Rule #3:  Don’t use web-based email accounts to carry out your crime(s), unless you’re really, really computer savvy.  (I’m thinking untraceable accounts, proxy servers and encryption here.)  Better yet, limit your conversations to in-person chats and cell phone conversations using numbers that cannot be traced to you.

My Recommendation (assumes you have bypassed the aforementioned rules):  Once you’ve put in your time, retire and follow in the footsteps of your fellow retired FSOs and other former USG employees who are making the big bucks without resorting to scams and money-laundering.  The revolving door still pays off in spades.  Patience really is a virtue.  Plan your escape but do it by the book.

Sellin’ Like Hot Cakes!

There have been rumors about “visas for sale” in Vietnam.  In a free market economy in which so much is for sale, my response was always “not likely” given the system of checks and balances that the US Mission has (is supposed to have) in place.  Trust, but verify.  The plot has thickened ever since (five) more names were released, including those of US and Vietnamese citizens that appear in the affidavit as “co-conspirators.”

It’s interesting and disturbing that Sestak wasn’t caught by his employer; it was an informant who brought this scam to the attention of the authorities.  That brings up the question:  who was minding the store?  (Me thinks this case is yet another nail in the coffin of a certain someone’s political pressure campaign to become the next US Ambassador to Vietnam.)

What shocked me more than the visa scam itself was the going rate:  50-70k.  I guess the “gang of six” determined that was what the market could bear.  Silly, naive me – I would have guessed a few thousand for a visa.  What’s ironic is that many would probably have received a visa without the bribe.  Mum’s the word but people of means usually stand a much better chance of obtaining a visa.  Refunds, anyone?

mike sestak in march 2012
From 13-16 March 2012 EducationUSA Senior Advisor Ngoc Quach and Consulate Non-Immigrant Visa Chief gave a series of tandem presentations at four different schools in Can Tho, Hau Giang and Ca Mau.

On the one hand, there are qualified and deserving Vietnamese, including parents who want to attend a son’s or daughter’s graduation, and bona fide students, whose applications are rejected because of the “intuition” of the interviewing consular officer, who has the power of God without His/Her wisdom.  On the other hand, people like Mike Sestak are issuing visas based on ability to pay.  Based on what I’ve heard “on the street” about visas for sale in other countries, I’m wondering if this isn’t the tip of a rather large iceberg.

Dear Reader – What do I say the next time a parent asks whether a US visa can be bought?

MAA

P.S.:  The silver lining to this scandal is that we’re not likely to hear too many holier-than-thou statements emanating from the US Mission in Vietnam in the coming weeks and months.  Be grateful for small mercies.

Recommended Reading

Here are some articles in English and Vietnamese.

Catching up with the Vos (6 June 2013)  Don’t miss the video!

Bộ Tư pháp Mỹ ra thông cáo về vụ “bán” visa (6.6.13)

Sestak khai nhận 1000-5000 USD/visa (6.6.13)

The big visa scam (2 June 2013)

Michael T. Sestak, accused of selling visas, held without bond (4.6.13) Follow-up article

Foreign Service officer made millions in visa-for-money scam, feds charge (23.5.13)  Original story