This article originally appeared on VICE France.
The term “forger” brings to mind Leonardo DiCaprio’s character in Catch Me If You Can. But Chris* is less criminal mastermind and more Kim Ki-jung in Parasite – a techy friend you go to for a fake diploma.
Like many of us, Chris first tried his hand at forgery to avoid getting in trouble with his mum. After forging her signature on a school report, he figured he was pretty good at it and decided to monetise the talent. His customers are often students and young adults in need a certain piece of paper. Chris gives them what they need, from vocational course certificates all the way up to fake degrees.
Although he now has a respectable job, Chris still does the occasional gig on the side. But it’s a risky game – in France, he could end up in prison for three years and pay up to €45,000 (£39,000) in fines. In the UK, a fake diploma can land you in jail for up to ten years. We met up one afternoon in Paris to talk about his double life.
VICE: When did you start forging documents?
Chris: I was about 13. I became interested in IT and wanted to be a game designer. I was quite good at Photoshop and had a lot of practice because I was skipping school and didn’t want to get caught. Back then, I was a drug mule – I knew everyone in Île-de-France [the suburbs of Paris]. When people found out what I was doing, I started forging documents for more people.
What types of document do you forge? And how do you make sure you don’t get caught?
I always work with people I know – acquaintances from my drug mule days, friends, or friends of friends. The basic rule is that giving names away is off-limits. If someone gets caught, they’ll say they bought a forged document but don’t know who made it, and that’s it. All my conversations are protected and I delete everything after I’ve finished the job. If the cops came to see me, they’d have no evidence against me. Anyway, I usually only do small documents to avoid that kind of attention.
Aren’t fake degrees considered important documents?
No, that would be more like police records, work contracts or rental contracts. Those documents are very closely monitored and the legal implications of forging them are completely different.
Generally speaking, how do people approach you?
Most of the time they come to me, but sometimes I offer them my services. I knew a guy who was desperately looking for a job after completing a training course in marketing. I felt sorry for him, and most importantly he had money. So I forged him a master’s degree in management. I told him to write references on his CV with my details, in case a recruiter called about his internships. Now he’s a project manager in a publicly-traded energy company.
What’s the weirdest request you’ve received?
I once made a middle school diploma. It seemed trivial, but it was for a Sudanese guy who moved to France. He was applying for French citizenship and had to take a B1 French language test. But if you can show proof of a [French] middle school diploma, you don’t need the test.
What are your rates like compared to forgers on the dark web?
You can’t really make a comparison. I don’t have a fixed price, it all depends on how difficult the request is. The middle school diploma was €200 (£173) and the Master’s degree was €1,700 (£1,470). University degrees are quite complicated – you have to find the institution’s stamp, the signature of the Director of Education, there’s also a unique matriculation number and some legal formulas. Once, I almost made a mistake – I didn’t realise the president of the university had changed. I had to do it all again and look for a new template with the right signature.
So you don’t start from scratch?
Of course not. I use my personal network – we all know a mate’s aunt’s brother who graduated from this or that school. I ask for a scan of the certificate, telling them it’s for a photography or research project. If I can’t source it from people I know, I search online. There are loads of people who post their degrees to vouch for their skills. When I ask for a scan, most people aren’t suspicious. They’re actually quite happy to show off their wonderful degree from a top university; it strokes their ego.
It sounds so easy to falsify documents. How can employers ensure someone’s qualifications are real?
This is what annoys me – most of the time, they don’t check. Some don’t even ask for a copy of the certificate. They’re happy just reading your CV. I get it, though – it’s impossible to go through all the applicants’ documents. Most of the time, they think people wouldn’t lie.
The main issue you could run into is if a recruiter finds out your CV has fake qualifications on it. But the police don’t have the time nor resources to track down every fraud case – they go for the large organised networks. I’m not a big fish, that’s why I’m pretty safe. I only forge documents occasionally now; I’m a freelancer, if you like. I have a good job these days and I don’t want to risk everything.
It’s funny, I’ve always thought of forgers more as craftsmen than as nerdy graphic designers.
That was definitely true 20 years ago. To recreate a wax stamp, for example, you needed a cobbler. But today, no one is going to ask for the originals – everything is photocopied. You can pick up some photo editing skills on OpenClassrooms [a French vocational training platform] and you’re good to go.
Do you think there are many small-time forgers like you out there?
Hard to say – it’s not like we have a forgers association. In drug dealing organisations, everyone has a precise role based on what they know, and generally there’s someone in the gang who forges documents. What people don’t realise is that you don’t need to be a professional, you just need to know how to use Photoshop or InDesign. And we all know someone who’s good at that.