Believe it or not, there are sites out there that take advantage of people who want to learn online. If you’re not careful, you could be a victim and lose a lot of money! Getting any education takes time, and online university programs are no different. There are no “get a degree fast” programs that are legitimate.
Providing your contact information and credit card number to a fake online learning website can cause you more than just a few problems. This opens you up to identity theft and misuse of your credit card. Your credit can become ruined for a long time and sorting out false transactions with a credit scoring agency can be a long and painful process, even if you are not at fault.
After you are robbed of good money, you still won’t have an online degree. After a bad experience like this, you’ll be suspicious of all online learning programs, which isn’t fair to the dozens of programs that are legit.
You may even be discouraged to continue your education online, which is an unfortunate result of a bad situation. Be extremely cautious and do research for any online learning programs before sending money.
Different Types of Online Learning Scams
Because the market for online education is growing so rapidly, the target for online education scammers is huge. There are several different forms of fraudulence in the e-learning sector, and you should be wary of all of them.
Take Your Money and Run
Some criminals design a site that appears to be a legitimate institution. They tout the ease in which you can earn a degree in days or weeks. The fees are reasonable, which is appealing to its cost-conscious victims.
You enroll in courses and pay online with a credit card. But, you never hear from the institution. You try to contact the numbers listed, but they are disconnected. There is no education and no degree waiting for you.
Unaccredited learning programs actually provide an education. It just may not amount to much. People who don’t know the importance of choosing a school accredited with a reputable source like the U.S. Department of Education can fall victim to this. These programs are usually more affordable (again, that’s the draw).
When a student tries to transfer credit to an accredited university, they discover that their credits are useless. Some financial aid lenders and even employers do not recognize unaccredited institutions. Your money is wasted, and you will likely have to take the same courses again at an accredited institution.
Degree mills are the worst scam, and people who buy into them usually know what they are doing. Degree mills sell you a fake degree. People who buy these degrees use them to unfairly gain advantage in the workplace.
7 Signs an Online Degree Program is a Scam
- It promises a degree in no time: Earning a degree takes time, and doing it online isn’t a shortcut to a fast degree. While some degree programs may be shorter than traditional counterparts, no degree can be earned in days or weeks.
- You can’t contact anyone about the program: A real program has advisors and customer service representatives to answer questions you may have. After all, you are trusting them to supply you with an education in return for a large fee. They should be available to you.
- Online forums and blogs have bad things to say: This is a no-brainer. If you do a search and find either no information on the program or only bad things, beware.
- The government education agencies have never heard of the program: Accredited degree programs will be listed with state or county education affiliations where the university is located. If they haven’t heard of them, they are likely a fly-by-night operation out to get your money.
- The site talks about getting your degree, but not the education part: Some devious sites actually sell fake diplomas, implying there is no need for the costly Harvard education when you can get a replica degree for cheap!
- It sounds too good to be true: Then it is. If the degree is super affordable, super easy and super fast, you will lose your money even faster.
- The school isn’t accredited: Accreditation is the main thing to look for in an online program. If it isn’t clearly stated that the school is accredited, you can’t be sure your coursework will count toward anything. There are accreditation agencies that you can research to see if the school is accredited.
Online Degree Mills and How to Avoid Them
A degree mill is a fake online university that sells college diplomas rather than the education that should accompany it. Degree mills make it unbelievably cheap to “attend” Harvard or other top-tier schools. These fraudulent companies promise you a degree within 30 days, which in the real world of education, is impossible.
Some warning signs to look for when encountering a degree mill:
- The only requirement to “get in” is a credit card
- The university is not accredited
- The university appears to be accredited, but not by an agency recognized by the Council on Higher Education Accreditation
- You are approved for a degree based on your faxed resume and nothing more
- A degree costs a flat fee, rather than cost per course
- The Better Business Bureau doesn’t have nice things to say about the company
- The company is located in another country
Do your research. If you find chat boards and forums that talk about the company negatively, stay away. You can’t earn a degree without an education, so take the time to find an accredited school that will give you more than a piece of paper. Visit the Council for Higher Education Accreditation to see if a school is accredited, and if it is, you know it is a school you can trust.
Beware of Accreditation Mills
While accreditation is important in searching for legitimate online learning programs, there is a gray area within the field. Some online universities claim to be accredited and they are. They are accredited by accreditation mills, which are groups with little to no educational standards that are not recognized by the U.S. Department of Education or Council for Higher Education Accreditation.
Essentially, accreditation mills will accredit any program that pays for it. That’s how they get their money. So the scamming program can then honestly state on their website that they are accredited by the Underwater Basket Weavers’ Agency or similarly fake organization.
Under normal (legal) circumstances, accreditation is earned by universities and colleges based on certain requirements and standards of their curriculum and degree programs. Accreditation mills charge for the privilege to say a school is accredited.
If a school claims to be accredited, research the accrediting agency, and check with the resources you can be certain will list a school that is accredited: U.S. Department of Education or Council for Higher Education Accreditation.
Life Experience Degrees: Don’t Believe the Hype
If you are researching online degree programs, you will likely come across websites that offer “life experience degrees.” They claim that they can provide you a degree based on your life and work experience. Sound too good to be true? It is.
While there are some legitimate degree and certification programs that allow some credit for work experiences (project management programs, for instance), an entire degree based on your experience is a scam.
The website will likely tell you that it can get you a degree in a very short period of time — five to 10 days. They may even offer you free verification of their services, but since they are the ones verifying themselves, this proves nothing in the way of the company’s legitimacy.
The website will offer “packages” for different price tiers. The packages will include a diploma, transcripts and award of excellence, university letterhead and envelopes–essentially anything to make it look legitimate.
Keep in mind that buying one of these degrees can get you in a lot of trouble. States are mandating fines and jail time for falsifying education information and there have been several high profile cases where individuals claiming to be professionals, such as doctors, have been sued for malpractice and put in jail.
While your life and work experience is valid and important, it will not get you a degree in days.
Using Accreditation Verification Services Online
If you are unsure if an online degree program is real or a scam, there are many trustworthy resources available online that will help you find out if a university or school is accredited or not.
U.S. Department of Education
The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Postsecondary Education has great online resources that explain what accreditation is and why it is important. It also has a detailed search function that allows you to search for accredited institutions by state or area, accrediting agency or type of degree.
Once you enter the criteria for your search, you can get more information on the school, such as its address, accrediting agency and how long it has been accredited. Be wary of schools that have only been accredited a few years (although do not necessarily rule them out; do more research). If the school has any specialized accreditation, this will also be listed.
Council for Higher Education Accreditation
CHEA also has a search function on its website to determine if a specific school is accredited. It states, however, that being listed on their site is voluntary for the institution and not all accredited schools may be listed. The site also explains degree and accreditation mills in detail.
If you do not have a specific institution in mind, you can do a general search for accredited programs. In the search results, you’ll find contact information and a website for the accredited programs in the area of study you have selected.
Keep in mind that there are accreditation mills that generate accreditation for fake schools, so just because a school is listed as accredited, don’t assume it’s safe. Continue your research to find out if it is indeed a legitimate program.
How to Find a Scam Free Degree Program
Don’t be daunted by the degree scams online. There are dozens of perfectly legitimate programs that will let you work toward a degree. Just do your homework in advance and you’ll find a program that is right for you!
- Search for what you want to study: If you type in “online forensics degree” in Google, you’ll get over a million results. Start with a few of the top results and visit the websites.
- Explore the site: Look for a few key things on an online learning program’s website. It should state prominently on the home page that it is accredited by an education association. Visit the “Contact Us” page to make sure there is a phone number (you can test it out to see if you can actually get a person on the line) and a U.S. address. If the contact info is scant or if the school is located in another country, this may be a red flag (note: all schools in other countries are not illegal!).
- Review the programs: Read through the degree program descriptions and course work to make sure everything makes sense (it should not have just two classes to earn a PhD!) and is in line with what you want to study.
- Check out the finances: The website should list the fees associated with the education, based on courses or semesters, not a flat fee.
- Contact the school: If the school appears to be valid, contact them for more information. The more information they can provide you, the more confident you can be about their program.
- Research online: Visit forums and chat boards to see what others have to say about the school.
What to Do if You Get Scammed
If you fall victim to an online degree rip-off, you will likely never get your money or time back. But you can do certain things to make sure others don’t fall into the same trap.
Report the Fraud
There are several resources you have that let you report Internet fraud. The Internet Fraud Complaint Center, a partnership between the FBI and the National White Collar Crime Center, allows you to report fraud and view tips and warnings about specific sites.
Tell the World
You can take advantage of the many online forums and chat rooms out there to warn others about the site that cheated you. By telling your story, you may prevent someone else from making the same mistake you did.
Start a Blog
Depending on how vindictive you feel toward your run-in with a criminal, you might even write a blog about your experience. You can start with the fake university or program you were swindled by, and add other programs that you find out are scams, too.
You can easily build an online community of people who are interested in learning more about new scams. You could even send out an e-newsletter to subscribers that includes alerts on the latest online degree con.