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Consumer Beware: Online Education Scams and the U.S. Government’s Recommendations

by Staff Writers

Online education is designed to make academic and professional training more accessible to those who live too far away to commute to the schools of their choice, make fitting in a continuing education or higher degree program easier for working professionals, and allow all types of students to manage unique school schedules that allow them to begin or advance a career that is relevant to the current workforce. Unfortunately, some illegal organizations have taken advantage of the ease with which students research and register for online programs and have set up scamming operations. One of the most common types of online education scams is diploma mills, groups that hide behind the facade of being an online university and print out fake diplomas to unsuspecting students.

Diploma mills have been able to succeed because they can easily set up a legitimate looking website that describes training programs or academic degree programs. These organizations can even fake "real" student or alumni testimonials, bolstering up their claim to being a valid online university. If a prospective student visits the site, he or she may not even be able to tell that the site is a front for education fraud. Students who live in another part of the country or even a different part of the world have no way of visiting the school’s main office to verify the school is legitimate. Diploma mills rely on prospective students that accept the website as substantial proof for the school’s existence.

To fight diploma mills, the U.S. Department of Education has posted its own website informing the public about how these organizations operate and how you can spot them during your online school research. The government recommends that students first look for the school’s accreditation status. Schools that are accredited will be proud to post that information on their website. The best kind of accreditation to look for is regional accreditation, which means that the school has met standards set forth by one of the regional accrediting councils, which itself has been approved by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation and the U.S. Secretary of Education. Two other popular accrediting bodies are the Distance Education and Training Council and the Accrediting Council of Independent Colleges and Schools. If the school you are researching posts information about another type of accrediting agency, you can check for it in this database, published on the U.S. Department of Education website. There, you can type in the name of the institution to see if it appears anywhere in the database. You can also try to match it to the accrediting agency listed on the school’s website to check its claim.

To help prospective students recognize a diploma mill or fake university, review these red flags, which the U.S. Department of Education and the Better Business Bureau have found helpful. Some signs that could indicate fraudulent behavior include the promise to award degrees in a very short amount of time, especially an amount of time that is drastically different than at a university you know to be accredited; tuition rates that are set up on a per-degree basis or discounts for enrolling in multiple degree programs. Accredited institutions charge by credit hours, course, or semester, according to ED.gov. Another important sign to watch out for are school addresses that only include a mail drop box or a P.O. box number, which may indicate that the alleged school does not have any real offices or headquarters. The U.S. Department of Education recommends that if students still question the legitimacy of a school that seems too good to be true, they contact the Better Business Bureau or the state attorney general’s office, who can run a check on the institution.

Another type of scam involving online education is the claim to be accredited by unrecognized organizations. Just because a school boasts accreditation does not mean that it is recognized by the Secretary of Education or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation. You can find a list of unrecognized accrediting agencies here.

Students interested in pursuing a degree program at an online university should also watch out for foreign diploma mills and foreign institutions. The Secretary of Education does not recognize foreign institutions, but some of the accrediting agencies that are approved by the Secretary of Education do recognize foreign institutions. If you are unsure about the quality of your foreign degree compared to a degree from a U.S. institution, you can have a private credential evaluation company do the research. Their findings should satisfy other U.S. institutions and employers.