Students working on diplomas online

A new investigation has unconvered some of the secret tactics of fraudulent online degree programs, which portray themselves as accredited universities in order to trick students into paying for useless diplomas.

An article originally published in Al-Fanar Media, a publication that covers higher education in the Arab world, revealed a complex network of online universities that use deceptive financial offers and intense sales strategies to convince students to hand over their money — then leave the students with worthless degrees that won’t help them get jobs.

The degrees granted by these universities and degree programs, commonly known as “diploma mills,” are not considered valid by most graduate schools or hiring managers, meaning that students are paying for what is essentially a worthless piece of paper.

And pay they do. Many of these programs trick students into writing big checks by offering what seem to be generous scholarships, often after just a few minutes of chatting with prospective students on the school’s web site. Once students accept, representatives then inform them that they must immediately pay the remainder of the fees not covered by the “scholarship,” which can add up to thousands of dollars.

This particular network, made up primarily of schools that claim to be based in the United States, drew the attention of Dean Hoke, the founder of Edu Alliance, an education consulting firm based in Abu Dhabi. After receiving a press release mentioning a so-called accreditation entity called the “Middle East Office of Academic Regulation & Examination,” Hoke investigated the organization’s site. An online representative began chatting with him and Hoke was quickly offered a generous scholarship — just as soon as he handed over his credit card information.

Diploma mills, of course, are nothing new. For as long as students have wanted high school or college degrees, there have been enterprising people all too eager to take advantage of idealistic learners.

Such entities are borderline illegal, if not actually breaking the law, in many countries, but it can be difficult to catch them — and almost impossible for swindled students to get their money back.

Just a few weeks ago, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission shut down two high school diploma mills that had been operating in Florida. The owners allegedly told prospective students they would get “‘official’ and accredited high school diplomas and use them to enroll in college, apply for jobs, and ‘receive the recognition [they] aspire for in life,’” and even invented an accreditation body to make them look more legitimate, according to the FTC. While students paid $200-300 for the phony degrees that wouldn’t help them get a job anywhere, the owners made more than $11 million off the scheme.

Though such extortion rackets have a long history in the U.S. and some other countries, the apparent expansion into the Arab world is especially troubling, suggesting that these phony schools are looking ever farther afield for new victims.

Of course, not all online universities or programs are diploma mills — there are plenty of legitimate educational institutions that offer online services and even degrees. Still, there are warning signs that prospective students should beware of while researching and interacting with online degree programs and their representatives.

The Better Business Bureau has a list of some of these red flags, which include:

  • “Degrees that can be earned in less time than at an accredited postsecondary institution, such as earning a Bachelor’s degree in a few months.
  • A list of accrediting agencies that sounds a little too impressive. Often, these schools will list accreditation by organizations that are not recognized by the U.S. Department of Education. These schools will also imply official approval by mentioning state registration or licensing.
  • Names that are similar to well known reputable universities.
  • Addresses that are box numbers or suites. That campus may very well be a mail drop box or someone’s attic”.

Digital technology has opened up a whole new world of educational opportunities for students across the globe, but there’s always someone trying to take advantage of a new opportunity. International students, particularly those that may be learning English as a second language, would be wise to do plenty of research into online institutions before making any commitments or offering any financial information.

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