Diploma mills aren’t the result of technological advancements.  In fact, phony institutions selling bogus degrees have been around since 1880 when physician John Buchanan starting hawking medical diplomas after the Civil War. Since then, shady schooling has enjoyed ebbs and flows, but there’s definitely been a surge during the past few years thanks to the growing popularity of online schooling and the current economic climate. Fancy Web sites can muddle a school’s authenticity (or lack thereof) especially when Web surfers are looking for a quick way to stand out in the job hunt. It doesn’t help, either, that bogus degrees aren’t always initially worthless.  

Case in point: Laura Callahan who served as former senior director of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in 2003. Callahan had been working for the government for almost five years before anyone realized her two computer science degrees from Hamilton University (not to be confused with the accredited Hamilton College) weren’t worth the paper they were written on. The now-defunct diploma mill from which she purchased a bachelor’s and master’s degree was investigated after another government employee questioned Callahan’s qualifications. Turns out Hamilton University was run out of a Motel 6 in Wyoming by an organization dubbed “The Faith in the Order of Nature Fellowship Church,” who sold degrees for a low fee and some minimal coursework.

Callahan was put on paid leave and ultimately resigned. No formal charges were ever filed.  However, the exposure prompted a widespread 2004 federal investigation by the General Accounting Office, which discovered that more than 463 employees had obtained degrees from unaccredited institutions. (To complicate matters, three of these employees had top-secret security clearance and emergency operations responsibilities.)   

Most of the officials were never publicly named so their exact fate remains unknown.

“It is taking a very big risk to buy a fake degree or to claim to have a degree that you have not earned. It is like putting a time bomb on your resume,” John Bear, diploma mill experts, says in his book “Bears’ Guide To Earning Degrees By Distance Learning. “The people who sell fake degrees will probably never suffer at all, but the people who buy them often suffer mightily.”
Sticking a bogus diploma on your resume can get you in hot water, and ultimately, patronizing a diploma mill is as useful as getting a degree from the school of hard knocks (though, careful observers will note that this is usually what a sketchy school is selling to begin with). Luckily, there are ways to distinguish a legitimate and worthwhile institution from the one that is being run out of a Holiday Inn.  

For starters, the U.S. Department of Education has a database of accredited post-secondary institutions and programs available online and designed specifically to help the public identify a scam. Additionally, it also has a list of nationally recognized accrediting agencies available on its Web site since diploma mills often claim accreditation from non-registered (and therefore illegitimate) organizations. Claims of accreditation serve to confuse prospective students, but it’s also what keeps the diploma mill legally in business. Operating through a for-profit (albeit shady) affiliate can keep the government from intervening since it often favors a hands-off approach to regulating businesses.  Either way, those looking to get a degree online should, first and foremost, consult these databases when considering online alma maters and their designated beneficiaries. You can also contact the Better Business Bureau of your state’s Attorney General’s office to validate that these schools are on the up and up.  

Those opposed to a little legwork should be on the lookout for these other telltale warning signs.  

You recognize the name … sort of: Back in 1998, the federal government shut down a diploma mill that was operating under the name Columbia State University. The mill, which was little more than a mailbox in Metairie, La., was easily confused with the Ivy League school, Columbia University.

Similarly, another diploma mill shut down by the federal government in 2004 dubbed itself LaSalle University of Louisiana, in hopes that prospective students would ignore the listed locale and confuse the school with the legit LaSalle University in Philadelphia. This trick has subsisted to this day so any online institution whose name rings a bell should send up immediate red flags.

They’re offering a degree in life experience: Despite the beliefs of some, there is a distinct difference between having a degree in humanities and having a degree in life experience so pay attention to what it is exactly you are buying.
“Beware of institutions that offer college credit and degrees based on life experience, with little or no documentation of prior learning,” the U.S. Department of Education says on its Web site. ”These institutions do not use valid methods to determine the amount of credit to be awarded.”

While some accredited and legitimate institutions can offer credit for life experience (think, more, along the lines of unpaid internships,) schools or sites that have “life experience” worked into their taglines should be avoided. It would be almost as bad as telling employers you graduated from Trump University.

It sounds too good to be true:
Many people want to get degrees online because of the flexibility and convenience that it offers.  But there’s a difference between streamlining your education and signing up for a cake walk.  The Better Business Bureau urges students to stay away from offers that sound too good to true.

This includes degrees that can be earned in less time than at an accredited postsecondary institution, tuition paid on a per-degree basis, discounts for enrolling in multiple degree programs, little or no interaction with professors and virtually no associated course work.

You can’t contact anyone directly: You also can’t figure out where the school or its headquarters are located. If there is an address listed, be wary of ones that include suite numbers or P.O. Boxes. (This is a good indication that you’re sending your payments to an individual and not an institution.)

They were started by L. Ron Hubbard: OK, so you may not run into this problem today as Hubbard’s well-publicized diploma mill Sequoia University was shut down by court order in 1984. (The creator of Scientology started the school so he could give himself a PhD.) Still, you should question any Web site that has a D-list celebrity singing its praises. Respectable institutions usually use distinguished alumni for commencement speeches, not ads.

—For the best rates on loans, bank accounts and credit cards, enter your ZIP code at BankingMyWay.com.