How to Buy a $17 College Education in Manila’s Forgery District

Manila | 06/12/2013 10:38am
Purple Romero | Informal City Dialogues

It was a shopping trip unlike any she’d taken before.

Ria, tall, her red lips in sharp contrast to her fair skin, and her friend Fay (all names in this post have been changed), were milling about the bargain-hunter’s paradise that is Quiapo on a Friday afternoon. They looked every bit like any other customer searching for merchandise on discount. Except Ria and Fay weren’t here to buy clothes. They’d come from Surigao, a province to the south, to hunt for the quickest education money can buy.

Quiapo, where one can buy almost anything, from pirated CDs to sex toys, is also home to a brisk trade in forged government documents, ID cards and university diplomas. Across the famed Plaza Miranda and the Quiapo church, men carrying easel-sized boards displaying such documents greet you. One sells fake social security system (SSS) IDs for $11 USD apiece. “I can do it in 40 minutes,” he assures me. A group of teenagers asks him how much a high school diploma would cost. The man offers to produce one for $8.

The forged-documents district extends to the nearby streets of C.M. Recto and Sta. Cruz in the University Belt, an area whose fake diplomas have earned it the nickname Recto University. Some of the fake-document vendors have other legitimate businesses, such as fixing broken watches, while others hide their forgeries behind dummy businesses printing tarpaulins and business cards. But it’s not like there’s any secret handshake to access the illicit merchandise — the stores are open for anyone to see. One of the store owners literally stands on the street and shouts, “SSS! Marriage certificates! What do you need? Go here!”

I ask this store owner — a grandmother whose age is belied by her shock of pink hair — if she’s afraid the police will raid her store. “I pay the police huge money,” she answers without batting an eyelash. “Don’t worry about it.”

Having bribe-taking policemen run protection for them makes it harder for rest of the local police force to clamp down on the industry. There have been attempts, but so far all have failed.

In 2006, the National Bureau of Investigation arrested six alleged members of a syndicate that manufactured fake diplomas in Manila. A year after that, the Commission on Higher Education asked the National Printing Office to start manufacturing “tamper-proof” college diplomas. (The idea was shelved). In 2008, then-Mayor Alfredo Lim ordered another crackdown on the operators. That same year, then-Senator Manuel Villar filed a resolution calling for a probe into the proliferation of fake government and school records.

But business continues apace.

So for people like Ria, Quiapo remains a quick route to a phony college education. But Ria is in Quiapo not to buy a fake diploma for herself, but for her husband. He’s applying for a job as a seaman — a lucrative profession for Filipinos, with a starting salary of $1,000 USD per month, plus benefits.

Her husband used to work as a government employee in Surigao, where he earned not more than $300 a month. He wants to try his luck at the seaman job, but he lacks the required training and education. “Put ‘Surigao Nautical Institute,’ “ Ria tells the seller. But there’s no dry-seal plate for that school. “How about we put Western Mindanao University instead?” suggests the seller, Roy, a boyish-looking man dressed in a loose shirt.

Ria insists this won’t do. But she’s already been to three different stores and has only gotten the price she wants here at the fourth — a fake diploma for $17. Roy offers to throw in a fake driver’s license for just $8 more. He places the license under a UV light to show Ria the hologram; he got the template for it from someone connected to the Land Transportation Office, the government agency that distributes driver’s licenses.

“This is safe,” he says, compared to the SSS ID, whose bar code he can’t precisely replicate. “If you want to open a bank account, you can use the driver’s license.”

The woman beside Roy, who also works there, says they advise their clients on what fake IDs to buy so they won’t be caught. “If you’re going to apply for a passport, don’t present fake stuff,” she says. “They have a way of finding out. But if you’re just going to apply for a job, you can use all of these.” She gestures to the wide array of fake documents on display, from birth and marriage certificates to government IDs.

Roy says they get more than five customers a day, but refuses to disclose how much money he makes. (It’s enough to feed his daughter, is all he’ll allow). He gets a cut of the payment and then the rest goes to his boss, the pink-haired store owner. The store also designs and prints tarpaulins, but their bread and butter is phony documents. Roy pulls out his leather wallet and shows me real government IDs, which they patterned their fake ones on. His lips are sealed, however, on how he got them.

“We will tell our clients what’s good for them,” he says. “If they want a job, this will help them.”

After Ria writes down her husband’s information, Roy asks her and her friend to come back in two hours to pick up the documents.

As we walk away, I ask Ria and Fay if they’re afraid of getting busted by the authorities. Fay seems baffled. “Why would we be scared? Many people do it.”

Photos by Purple Romero