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How to Spot a Fake Online School

The convenience and flexibility of distance learning—earning a college degree over the internet without ever setting foot in a classroom—has attracted thousands of people searching for a higher education. Unfortunately, this widespread interest in convenient college degrees has also spawned a whole new scam industry: degree mills. These carnivorous companies offer “official” degrees in return for a flat fee of a few thousand dollars. No learning or coursework is involved in a degree mill. Once they have your money, they print your name on an impressive-looking but completely worthless piece of paper, mail it to you, and presto! You’re a college graduate.

If this scenario sounds intriguing to you, you’re not alone. Thousands of people have either willingly or unknowingly invested in a fake degree. The problem has become so pervasive that several corporations and state governments are taking steps to make using fake degrees to gain employment a crime, punishable by fines, prison time or both. Those who aren’t aware they are signing up for a degree mill program are often shocked to discover their degree is useless.

Fake online schools have developed a startling repertoire of logical-sounding arguments to convince potential students to enroll in their “programs.” Often, owners of degree mills change the name of the school to avoid getting caught. With that in mind, how can you avoid signing on with a fake online school? There are several red flags you should watch for while considering a potential internet college.

The easiest warning sign to spot is a school whose only requirement for a degree is a valid credit card number. If you’re promised a degree within thirty days of payment, the school is a fake. Some degree mills attempt to justify their lack of actual classes by stating that receipt of a degree from them is based on “life experience.” Another way to distinguish phony online schools is the payment schedule. Legitimate colleges charge admission on a per-course or per-credit hour basis; degree mills charge a flat fee per degree, usually $2,000 to $4,000. If the fee schedule is not broken down by course, be alert—it’s probably a scam.

Examining the accreditation, or lack thereof, of an online school is another key to exposing fake programs. If the school is not accredited (you may have to do some searching on the site to find this information), they are definitely not legitimate. Some online programs claim to be accredited, but if this quality status is not granted through an agency recognized by the Council on Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA), it’s likely a fake school. You can check against the listing of acceptable accreditation agencies on the CHEA web site at

Still another agency that will help you verify the authenticity of an online school is the Better Business Bureau at If there are a number of complaints on file with the BBB regarding a particular college, chances are it’s a fraud. If you’re interested in earning a degree online, taking the extra time to investigate the credentials of your chosen school will benefit you by keeping your money out of the hands of scammers, and leaving you free to earn the degree you deserve. Don’t cheat yourself out of an education by falling victim to a fake online school, because knowledge is indeed power.

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