Scams and The Media: An Immigrant's Experience
Dr. Anthony Alsayed
Toronto Star's Reporter: Dale Brazao
I learned a hard lesson when I came to North America. Sources: Google/search/images & Saultthisweek.com
Canada is a great country in so many ways: civilized, welcoming, safe. But like any other country it can easily play host to scams and thievery, and the people most vulnerable to that are immigrants. Immigrants unfamiliar with their rights; immigrants who misjudge a situation as the way things are done in this country; immigrants who, due to differences in cultural norms, may not even recognize they are being stolen from. And should an immigrant go to a member of the media with their story and they happen to deal with a self serving individual, they risk being victimized twice.
The reporter at a newspaper is not your friend. Before you consent to an interview, or provide a photograph, find out what the story they’re writing is really about. What their objective is.
My experience in this country has taught me that much. I have also learned that things are never quite what they appear; that due diligence in research is not always enough; that fraud can operate on a massive scale and that anti-fraud agencies aren’t always what they claim to be.
I am a Lebanese-born Canadian Citizen who came to Canada in late 1990s having obtained a medical degree with honors along with postgraduate training in internal medicine from Russian universities in Moscow. Though I continued my education in the medical field at Canadian and American universities such as Laval University, Quebec University, Harvard Medical School and the Michener Institute, and I sought positions in clinical research wherever I could, I still wanted to find some form of recognition for my body of medical research and other professional experience to expand on my employment opportunities. So I began looking for online courses or by correspondence with respect to my busy schedule.
That’s how I found St. Regis. Based on their web site, it looked like my previous degrees, combined with their testing and my clinical research experience, I could finally get the appropriate accreditation for my accomplishments as an educator in the field of medicine. In 2003 I contacted them. They claimed their service was to provide deserving and educated individuals with verifiable credentials to recognize their knowledge, skills and experience. I sent them my official documents and application for a Doctoral Degree in Medical & Health Education, along with a hefty fee.
In January the following year I was sent a PhD certificate and two letters of recommendation; the transcripts, to my surprise, reflected lower marks than I had received previously. While on one hand this made the whole thing seem more legit; on the other, I worked hard for those marks and so protested. Their response to me was that medical degrees were very tough to come by.
While I accepted that excuse I became sceptical and decided to vet them further. I had previously contacted the Ministry of Education that accredited St. Regis University, who sent me certified documentation attesting to the validity of St. Regis, but now I discovered that the government there no longer sponsored the embassy so the Consulate General could not help me. I contacted UNESCO in France. I also hired an American degree certification and private investigation agency because St. Regis is based in the States. They vouched for St. Regis, and now sent me a stamped, dated and sealed certificate attesting to the St. Regis degree being the equivalent to an American accredited Doctor of Philosophy degree.
Despite these extraordinary efforts, I was unable to uncover the truth: that St. Regis, of course, was a fraud; a diploma mill operation that I’ve since discovered is part of a billion dollar industry. Shut down in 2005 by the U.S. government after a Secret Service agent posing as a Syrian weapons specialist was granted fake I.D. and a degree, it was considered one of the largest in the bogus degree marketplace, with members from the military and government included. I jumped at the chance to talk to the Toronto Star when they reached out.
The piece was on diploma mill scams, but I was not sufficiently schooled in media culture here to understand how important “spin” or an angle is. On Dec. 13, 2008, they published a lengthy piece entitled “Phony Degrees Catch Up to Buyers” with a picture of me right underneath, and instead of profiling St. Regis they profiled the buyers. In doing so they wove an implicit bias throughout: that freeloading applicants had been looking for an easy route to the top and had little moral compass. There was little detail on how the scam worked, who was in on it or how consumers could protect themselves. My photo juxtaposed with the title created a defamatory impression and, as it has been online ever since, has hurt me professionally.
Here’s my point: it is wildly irresponsible for a journalist to do a story on diploma mill scams without profiling in earnest the stories of its victims. Why? Because otherwise the victims become little more than props to a lazy news story, and there is little insight offered toward consumer protection. The reader walks away thinking about how stupid, gullible or crooked the applicants were rather than considering the facts: that the diploma mill industry and its “regulators” still exist and we need to adopt a buyer beware mentality.
I was not a plumber trying to fast track a PhD as a medical educator. I was someone from an entirely different culture who (mistakenly) understood that this was Canada’s accreditation and equivalency system. I went out of my way to do due diligence in investigating what I was told as a responsible citizen. As a professional I deal regularly with the FDA, Health Canada, scientists and the Institutional Review Board, among others, and I am proud of my affiliations. I got in to clinical research because I sincerely believe it benefits humanity, and launched my own company called MegaMed Clinical Research. I teach medicine at several private Canadian academic institutions.
I am not a freeloader. I am a medical doctor working toward a PhD in clinical research in order to be a post-doc and a professor in my field. For years now I have suffered significant embarrassment as my professional image is tarnished by that story. I found a lawyer who offered to settle my dispute with the Star on the basis that this image be removed or the caption corrected, but they refused.
I can accept the financial loss involved in being duped. But I refuse to accept the ongoing humiliation of having my intentions and character misrepresented in the media. This is not only fixable, it was preventable. In a metropolitan city like Toronto famous for its vast multiculturalism on the world stage, we need a much better understanding of the challenges that immigrants face and what it might be like for them in adjusting to utterly foreign ways. We need more governing bodies protecting us against fraud, but we also need more agencies dedicated to orienting immigrants on how our education systems work and how to recognize fraudulent activity.
Those who come to Canada with established careers and degrees under their belt deserve respect.