A government service exposing fake, online universities has identified 190 bogus institutions selling qualifications as part of a multi-million pound industry.

The Higher Education Degree Datacheck, commissioned by the Department of Business, has discovered institutions such as the 'University of Wolverhamton' (the 'p' is missing) and Manchester University (University of Manchester is genuine) passing off degrees to unsuspecting students and willing fraudsters.

The international industry, peddling fake degrees sometimes unrecognisable from the real thing, is growing rapidly, with a 14% increase on the number of verifications carried out by the datacheck service in the last year alone.

Copies of the fake certificates can often be countersigned by notaries or solicitors attesting to having viewed the original certificate, not realising that the 'original' isn't genuine and associated websites can be so sophisticated that employers and hopeful students cannot tell the difference.

Jayne Rowley, business services director for the data checking service, told the IBTimes UK that the level of credibility offered by the fraudulent sites varies, as well as the kind of customers they attract.

"Absolutely, there are fraudsters who are trying to pass them off as real to employers," she explained. "But there are people who are innocent and in some cases are paying five figure sums.

"The extent of the problem is unknown because employers take them at face value. People are complacent because they take the bogus diplomas as real."

The size of the booming industry for bogus colleges, universities and other higher education institutions was shown by the New York Times last month when the newspaper exposed a network of 370 fake universities and high schools purportedly endorsed by CNN International and US Secretary of State John Kerry.

Commenting on the New York Times investigation, the Datacheck service described the fraud as a "diploma mills 101 course in how to scam the world".

As of July a new service will be offered by the Higher Education Degree Datacheck, which is run by the education specialist Prospects on behalf of the Department of Business, to help genuine higher education providers that find themselves victims of copycat websites.

Jo Johnson, universities and science minister, announced the project, saying: "We have appointed Prospects to help us expose unscrupulous organisations and remove misleading websites wherever they make an appearance.

"Such action is in the interests of all legitimate providers and genuine students because it will help protect the reputation of the UK as a provider of high-quality education."