TARPON SPRINGS, Fla. (WFLA) – It takes years of study and a fortune in tuition to earn a college degree, unless you take the kind of shortcut former Tarpon Springs Fire Chief Rick Butcher did.

Instead of cracking the books, Butcher simply went online and bought his BS degree from Almeda University, one of the world’s most notorious diploma mills.

“It just seemed like an opportunity and I took it,” Butcher said. “And it wasn’t worth taking.”

“The school doesn’t exist. It’s smoke and mirrors,” said retired FBI agent Allen Ezell. “It’s never been real anywhere.”

Ezell should know. Before retiring from the FBI, Ezell spent 11 years busting diploma mills. He’s written a book on degree mills and even recently purchased his own degree from Almeda, as further proof of the school’s ongoing diploma scam.

“I paid about $1,000 plus a $50 fee,” Ezell said.

Butcher recently retired as Tarpon Springs Fire Chief, where he started as a volunteer firefighter 39 years ago. Butcher earned plenty of fire training certificates along the way but never obtained a college degree.

Butcher insists he was lured into buying his Almeda BS diploma based on “life experience,” but now regrets writing that check.

“I feel like I got taken for a ride,” Butcher said. “Don’t do it. It’s not worth it.”

Ezell says Butcher’s Almeda degree is one of at least 220,000 fake degrees he’s discovered that are all connected to a Pakistan company called Axact, which may be the world’s biggest diploma mill.

Ezell says Axact has generated $1 billion or more selling degrees from its list of more than 500 fake schools.

MORE: 8 ways to spot a diploma mill

“The size is staggering. The revenues are even more staggering,” Ezell said.

8 on Your Side obtained an Axact list of more than 5,600 fake degrees bought by Florida residents, including more than 1,000 in the Tampa Bay area.

One of those degree holders is Veterans Administration police officer Roger Lindsay Sr., who applied to be the police chief for the town of Lake Hamilton in Polk County in December 2015.

According to records we obtained from Lake Hamilton, Lindsay submitted the bogus diploma he bought from Almeda University, claiming he had a Master of Business Administration.  He didn’t get the top cop job, but Lake Hamilton’s clerk says no one ever took steps to verify his diploma.

Lindsay tells us he now considers himself a victim for purchasing a degree based on life experience without ever having to study, pass a test or attend any classes.

“I didn’t break any doggone laws. I paid for something that was worthless,” Lindsay said.

Lindsay claims he only found out later that Almeda was a fictitious school without any accreditation.

“It was just a bunch of fraud bull—t,” Lindsay said. “I told them to take a long walk off a short pier.”

In May 2015, seven months before Lindsay applied for the police chief job, Pakistan’s Federal Investigation Agency (their version of the FBI) raided Axact’s sprawling Pakistan headquarters and arrested top executives. 

Ezell says the FIA recovered warehouses full of fake diplomas, a database listing hundreds of thousands of customers, uncovered 35 bank accounts in 19 countries and found evidence Axact workers were even extorting high-profile diploma buyers for more money.

“They would stop at nothing to get more money from you,” Ezell said.

Even still, Ezell says the Axact executives eventually went free after a judge who admitted to taking a bribe acquitted everyone based on a lack of evidence. Ezell says the company is now back to grinding out diplomas as fast as people around the globe will buy them.

“Honestly, I don’t know if it’s ever going to end,” Ezell said.

Maybe that’s because even legitimate professionals appear to be willing to puff up their resumes with dubious degrees. Take for example Hernando resident Larry Lee Fluty, a Florida-licensed professional engineer and past president of the Brooksville Kiwanis Club.

According to his LinkedIn page, Fluty has expertise in drainage, watershed resources and land development and now runs his own engineering company.

We discovered Fluty’s PhD in Civil Engineering from Grant University on a list of Axact degree buyers.

“I am flabbergasted,” Fluty said when we told him of Axact’s notoriety. “I’m like ‘holy cow’ at this moment.”

The trouble is that Fluty’s alma mater Grant University doesn’t appear to exist anywhere — even Fluty couldn’t find any references to the school on the Internet when we asked him about his Grant University doctoral studies.

“I’m shocked about this and I’ve got to find out more about what’s going on with this,” Fluty said.

Fluty printed out a PDF copy of his Grant University diploma to show us as proof of his PhD, but insists he doesn’t have any correspondence, transcripts or assignments to back up his claims that he spent two years of rigorous coursework to earn his engineering doctorate.

“I wish I did,” Fluty said. “The problem is I had a computer crash and I’ve lost a lot of the files.”

Fluty also told us he earned a Master’s Degree in Engineering from USF. However, USF tells us Fluty took some engineering classes but never completed the program.

Ezell says his degree-mill investigations, stretching back to “Operation Dipscam” in 1980, show that many degree buyers try to profit from bogus diplomas with pay hikes and promotions and he found plenty of them working in all levels of government.

“We found everything from school teachers, school principals, head of boards of education, government employees, NASA, you name the agency, we’ve been up and down Pennsylvania Avenue,” Ezell said.

In Florida, firefighters like Rick Butcher can get pay enhancements with proof of a college degree through a statewide incentive program, though Butcher insists he never collected anything extra for his Almeda University degree.

“If anything, I got taken and I didn’t benefit in any way, shape or form from that,” Butcher said.

Ezell insists that whether or not degree buyers leverage their bogus diplomas for pay or promotion, they cause real harm to legitimate college students who work hard to earn academic credentials.

“They’re devaluing everyone’s legitimate academic credentials,” Ezell said. “During [Operation] Dipscam, I bought two MDs [along] with transcripts, but at least I was able to arrest the people who were selling those and identify all the people who bought it. It devalues everything.”

Follow Mark Douglas on Facebook and watch his report at 5 p.m.