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Getting your high school diploma, GED, college or an advanced degree can be the key to a better-paying career, especially in this economy.

Online degrees can be a more affordable and convenient way to raise your job-seeking profile, but it pays to research where your tuition money is going first.

Professional looking online diploma mills are scamming scores of students, according to the Better Business Bureau, and in the process costing them money, career opportunities and sometimes their dignity.

"Not all institutions offering online diplomas or degrees are legitimate and individuals looking to get ahead are being duped by diploma mills," states a BBB alert.

This week, two sets of related scam schools are being called out by the BBB: Belford High School and Belford University, as well as Jefferson High School Online and Vencer High School Online. The BBB received 117 complaints from 40 states regarding the Belford schools, some from students who had paid as much as $1,400 for invalid degrees. The latter institutions, also the target of multiple complaints, are run out of St. Kitts in the Caribbean, not exactly a bastion of American higher learning.

Some Belford "graduates" learned their degree was worthless during their job interviews (um, ouch), others from other college admissions or military recruiting offices (not much better).

Here are five signs that indicate a potential online diploma mill, according to the Better Business Bureau:

    Degrees or diplomas awarded for "life experience" or require minimal work.

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    A guarantee of a degree or diploma in days, weeks or months.

    Package deals for multiple degrees purchased as once, such as a Bachelor's and a Master's degree for one low price.

    Administration addresses that are P.O. boxes or suites.

    Prices are listed for complete degrees, as opposed to credits or credit hours.

    If you are unsure of where an institution stands, the U.S. Department of Education has a database of accredited post-secondary schools online. Also the BBB keeps track of which colleges or universities are accredited from one of the regional accreditation boards.

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