Fake online schools peddle 200,000 bogus degrees each year -- here's how to avoid falling victim

They’re known as “diploma mills.”

Each year, more than 350 websites posing as legitimate online universities sell 200,000 degrees around the US and other countries. Though they may seem real, the sites offer fake diplomas, accredited by bogus institutions, for several hundred to several thousand dollars.

As the academic year approaches, these online scams are poised to reap millions from unsuspecting customers who seriously believe they are enrolling as students.

There are several key tells that an online school is little more than a diploma mill.

1. The name

Hoping to dupe people into thinking a school is prestigious, companies will pick a fake name that sounds like an existing university. In 2015, the New York Times published an investigation of Axact, a Pakistani diploma mill that operated “schools” with names like Columbiana, Barkley, and Mount Lincoln.

Sometimes, the sites will even mimic the typeface and colours of the real school, in an effort to further mask the deception.

2. The time commitment

Diploma mills operate partially under the assumption that online learners want to speed through their coursework as quickly as possible. Many fake schools brag that students can receive their degree in just a couple months or several weeks.

“Though there are schools that offer accelerated degrees in-person or online, earning a degree still takes some time,” the Free Trade Commission states on its website. “If an ad promises that you can earn a degree in a few days, weeks, or even months, it’s probably a diploma mill.”

3. The flat fee

Real diplomas cost a lot of money and are priced out by the class, credit hour, or semester. Diploma mills make their money by asking for all the money, typically a few hundred dollars, up front.

This ensures the fake school gets paid before the customer wises up to the scam.

4. The promise of ‘experience’

College degrees are proof you earned an education. Since diploma mills know they can’t reliably offer the lessons learned in a classroom, they tend to lean more heavily on “real world experience” or “life lessons” in their sales pitches.

Real schools may award a few credits for work or experience, the FTC states, “but not an entire degree.”

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