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The Truth About Diploma Mills and Fake Degrees - The Know-How You Need to Avoid Being Duped Courtesy Counterfeit

Before the mid-80s the global marketing of fake college degrees and high school diplomas was difficult at best. The Internet revolutionized the way business was done. Brick and mortar storefronts moved into a virtual realm where physical boundaries became transparent.

The business of phony college degrees is nothing new. The demand has been in place since higher education was created. Combine the robustness of e-commerce with the pressures to earn college degrees and you have a powerful motivator driving both fake degree suppliers and their consumers.

Business Booms Where There is a Demand

Diploma mills capitalize on the consumer desire for a more competitive career edge. For most professionals, the competitive leg up translates to more education. Those with an Associates degree want a Bachelor's, those with a Bachelor's want a Master's, and so on. The quicker, the cheaper, and the less work involved the better. What if you could convince a consumer that a degree based on previous life and work experience is as valid as a college degree? What a business model that would be. But who would buy that message?

Diploma Mill Business Model

Modern day diploma mills have perfected just such a model. And it works. Experts who spend their lives digging into the deepest recesses of degree mills suggest that as elusive as the flow of money is, that the fake degree business rakes in over $500 million dollars a year. Sounds like plenty of people buy the message.

Slick online websites for diploma mills give the illusion that they are as substantial and solid as any brick and mortar college in America. Dig behind the domain name, however, and addresses in places like Liberia, the Virgin Islands, and the Middle East are common and expose the illusions for what they are: virtual houses of cards. There are no campuses and no faculty offices.

Diploma Mills on American Soil

Many diploma mills are located within the U.S.; in states like Wyoming, Mississippi, and Alabama. Fraud laws and higher education regulations are so flimsy in these areas that unaccredited and low-quality colleges and universities may flourish.

Other states have taken notice. Oregon has been most proactive in getting the word out. The Oregon Office of Degree Authorization maintains a list of unaccredited colleges that are known to prey on the ignorance of consumers. The numbers of questionable institutions is as alarming as are the audacious claims on their websites. ODA also lists the states where laws are so shaky that unaccredited colleges have become a threat to legitimate education.

Are Diploma Mills Legal?

Laws on fake degrees-both manufacture and use of-are spotty across the States. In many other countries the practice is illegal, but loosely policed. In the U.S. the federal government largely puts the responsibility on each state. Because the business is a white collar crime, no large scale enforcement has been set in motion.

Consumerism of Fake Degrees

Two kinds of consumers are drawn to bogus degrees:

Diploma mill customers attracted by the allure of "life experience" degrees typically seek career advancement and need one or more college degrees. They are mislead by terms such as "accredited" and are persuaded to believe that their past work experiences are as measurable as college course credits.

Fake degree buyers are those consumers that typically need a fake document that is foolproof to employers and other officials. The only purpose is to deceive.

Marketing Fake Degrees

Parallel to the types of fake degree consumer, are two types of fake degree businesses:

Fake degree suppliers make no pretense of being colleges or leading consumers to believe their resumes can translate to real degrees. They unabashedly sell, advertise, and fiercely market "fake," "phony," "bogus," and "novelty" degrees.

In comparison, diploma mills go to great lengths to create an illusion of reality and authority. Savvy marketing ploys and misleading information draws customers that may believe an evaluation essay or exam, combined with their resume, earns them an academic degree.

Fake Diplomas in the Workplace

In the last few years some very high-profile professionals in all walks of life have been exposed for listing diploma mill degrees on their resumes. Laura Callahan, a Chief Information Officer with the Department of Homeland Security, was found to have listed three such degrees earned from a now defunct degree mill in Wyoming. In fact, her final Ph.D. degree clinched the CIO position. The only true academic work she'd done for her alleged degree was to write an essay. Remember when a Ph.D. degree was once considered one of the highest and most prestigious academic accomplishments?

The Cost of Fake Degrees

In monetary terms fake degrees cost from $50 up to thousands of dollars. Aside from the monetary cost, though, the business of diploma mills and fake degrees has undercut the value of higher education. Most hard hit have been legitimate online degree programs. Even the term "accredited" has been defaced. Accreditation mills are the new offspring of diploma mills-fake agencies that purport to lend credence to low-quality online degree suppliers.

According to recent surveys, employers are increasingly suspect when considering applicants' education records. Most still don't know how to conduct a thorough background check into academics and many avoid those applicants with any type of online degrees, period.

Alternatives to Diploma Mills

How do you avoid being scammed by a diploma mill? A real college degree takes work. But it no longer has to come at the cost of your career and family time. Excellent online degree programs deliver personal satisfaction, a study-at-your-own-pace program, and legitimate Department of Education accredited degrees.

Where college tuition costs are the biggest concern, wannabe students must stay committed to the process of financial aid, scholarships and grants. There is free money to be had. Learn how and where to find it.

Community and technical colleges offer alternative degree programs that deliver career-centric know-how at a much lower price. Immediate employment, practical experience, or the added option to transfer seamlessly to a four-year degree program, are the leading reasons to pursue this legitimate educational angle.

Protect Your Career and Reputation

Everyone has options. Right now enough misinformation still exists that consumers remain easily persuaded by degree scams. Get the resources you need to make informed decisions. And go with your gut instincts: if you have a bad feeling about some promise an online college is making, it's most likely a sham. Remember, degree mills are not going away anytime soon. Their methods will no doubt reach new levels of sophistication. Be vigilant; your career and reputation depend on it.

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What is a diploma mill?

A diploma mill is a actually a business that makes a profit by disguising itself as a legitimate college, university, or school. A diploma mill (or "degree mill") will pose as a real university and rewards degrees without evaluating any (or very little) academic work from its "students." They make money by selling printed degrees and providing academic references and falsified transcripts to individuals who purchase degrees from them.

A degree mill sells varying levels of degrees, from bachelor's degrees to doctoral degrees. A degree mill also allows its customers to purchase academic honors (like summa cum laude). A diploma mill typically has two types of customers:

1.  Individuals searching for a genuine academic program and are unaware that they are enrolling at a degree mill.

  1. Individuals who are aware that they are committing fraud and want to build their credentials quickly for academic or professional reasons.

Remember: only lists accredited online schools that have been accredited by an agency recognized by the U.S. Department of Education and/or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation.

How do diploma mills get started?

Online education is fairly new to most postsecondary institutions, with schools constantly developing and revising its programs to suit today's students. With new programs being introduced to potential students everyday, it would be seemingly simple for an individual to create a Web site with a seemingly legitimate school, no matter how fake.

Unfortunately, the Internet can be a place where scams and counterfeit operations can target victims. So long as a diploma mill's Web site has convincing writing and appealing images, it stands to churn out fake degrees undetected. It is not difficult to register a Web site with a .edu domain name.

With access to: a quality color printer and fax; a phone number and email address; and good looking Web site, any individual can establish a diploma mill. Dr. John Bear is considered to be an expert in the field of distance learning, and his 2003 edition of Guide to Earning Nontraditional Degrees, unavoidably includes 481 phony schools.

Is there example of a diploma mill?

There are two kinds of diploma mills, those which offer low quality, specious programs or courses, and those that merely sell you a copy of a degree with your name on it.

It has been reported that Brian McNamee, a personal trainer for professional baseball athletes (including Roger Clemens), earned his doctoral degree from a diploma mill. The diploma mill is called Columbus University, and had operated out of many different states including Mississippi, Louisiana, and now Alabama.

It has been reported that Mr. McNamee was required to write a dissertation in order to complete his doctoral program, but that he had little to no interaction with any faculty member. On its Web site, Columbus University claims that it is "The Established Name in Distance Education" and also claims that it is accredited by the The Adult Higher Education Alliance. This is a fake accrediting agency.

The Adult Higher Education Alliance is not recognized by the U.S. Department of Education. The U.S. Dept. of Education's Web site lists several established, recognized accrediting agencies including the Distance Education and Training Council (DETC) and Accrediting Council for Continuing Education and Training (ACCET).

There are other indicators demonstrating Columbus University's illegitimacy.

If you look up the registration information of their Web site, scroll down to the section labeled "Whois Record." You'll find that they list a third party company rather than the mailing address on their home page. This is not typical for a legitimate educational provider. Most schools disclose their complete contact information and mailing addresses with their registration information. Diploma mills have every reason to hide and mask their location, because they sell fraudulent degrees.

Real or Fake?
Take our quiz and find out if you could spot which school is legitimate, and which school is a diploma mill!

How can I tell if a school is a diploma mill?

  • They often have names similar to well-known colleges or universities, but fail to mention an accrediting agency or name a fake accrediting agency.
  • The organization frequently changes addresses, sometimes moving from state to state.
  • Written materials typically include numerous spelling and grammatical errors, sometimes on the diploma itself.
  • Overemphasis on the speed and brevity with which someone can receive a degree (e.g. "Call now and have your degree shipped to you overnight!").
  • Degrees can be earned in far less time than normal (e.g. 27 days) or the diploma is printed with a specific backdate.
  • There is no selectivity in admissions, or any questions about previous test scores or detailed academic history.
  • No interaction with professors or faculty (e.g. only two emails are received from a professor).
  • Degree requirements are vague or unspecified, lacking class descriptions and without any mention of how many credit hours are required to complete a program.
  • Tuition and fees are typically on a per-degree basis.
  • Grade point average (GPA) and academic honors (e.g. Summa Cum Laude) can be specified at the time of purchase.

What's being done about these degree mills?

Unfortunately, fraudulent schools continue to spread and are increasingly sophisticated in their scams. These diploma mills survive by operating in states lack strict laws regarding school accreditation, such as California, Utah, Hawaii and Louisiana. They assume identities of well-known schools, or market themselves as a religious organization.

Because of constitutional safeguards, the United States guarantees separation of church and state. Most states are reluctant to pass any laws restricting the activities of churches, including their right to grant degrees. Diploma mills take advantage of such a reluctance.

To further protect themselves and to take advantage of less rigorous laws, diploma mills often operate out of multiple political jurisdictions. They sell degrees only in other states or other countries. Many degree mills operate from England, selling fake degrees only to people in other countries, primarily the United States, Africa, and Asia.

It can sometimes be difficult to prove fraud in the case of a diploma mill. In some cases, a diploma mill may immunize itself from prosecution by being forthcoming about its business, fully acknowledging that it is a diploma mill. The individuals that buy degrees from this particular type of diploma mill are fully aware that they are getting a degree without having to complete any academic program. In this case, the diploma mill is arguably acting only as a business.

It is very risky to buy a fake degree, or claim to have a degree without having completed an accredited degree program. Consumers with bogus degrees are liable to find themselves embarrassed professionally, or even out of a job. The most severe consequence is having to face criminal charges. In Oregon, using a degree from an unlicensed institution to get a job or gain a promotion is illegal.

Remember: only lists accredited online schools that have been accredited by an agency recognized by the U.S. Department of Education and/or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation.

How can I protect myself from diploma mills?

If you are looking to enroll in a degree program, it is important to research your online school thoroughly. If you have any doubts about an online program:

  • See if the online school is accredited and by whom. Check to see if the accrediting agency is officially sanctioned. Lists are available from several accrediting organizations.
  • Check with licensing boards and professional associations to see if the program delivers an acceptable level of training.
  • Don't limit your research to classified ads or survey the Web in search of the right course or program.
  • Call or write the Better Business Bureau and the attorney general's office to make sure the school is operating legally in a state and to see if anyone has filed a complaint.
  • Find out if the school is connected to an established, reputable parent company.
  • If you intend to transfer any online credits earned to another college or university, early on check with that institution to see if they accept those credits.
  • Ask about the faculty: Who teaches the courses? What degrees do they have? What is their area of expertise?
  • Refer to the published guides of online, correspondence, and other distance delivered courses.

How are fake degrees sold?

Online diploma mills can be difficult to detect. Their Web sites contain scenic campus photographs and describe a faculty composed of dedicated professors. To the untrained eye, a diploma mill may appear to be a genuine, accredited academic institution.

You've probably seen an e-mail from a degree mill in your inbox before. An e-mail from a diploma mill typically does not include a college or university name. Most simply state "Earn a degree from a prestigious, non-accredited university" and list only a phone number.

All of their promotions not only appear to be distinguished and established, but amazing claims help lure customers. When speaking with a diploma mill customer representative over the phone, they will deliver some (or all) of these twelve sales pitches:

1.  "Receive your degree from a prestigious, non-accredited university."

  1. "Do you want a diploma without the dreary classes, droning profs and annoying exams?"
  2. "You will obtain a prosperous future, money earning power, and the admiration of all."
  3. "You can receive a diploma from our university based on your present knowledge and life experience. No classes necessary!"
  4. "There will be no required tests, classes, books or interviews."
  5. "Bachelor's, master's, and doctoral degrees are available in the field of your choice."
  6. "You have been selected to earn your MBA."
  7. "$425 will certify you for a bachelor's degree from John Doe University."
  8. "You will receive your diploma within days.
  9. "With an additional payment of $75 in tuition, you will earn Magna Cum Laude."
  10. "If you enroll today, we will send you your diploma, a laminated, wallet-sized replica of your diploma, honors of your choice, transcripts, and letters of recommendation."
  11. "You will receive unlimited support from us, including verification of your credentials to prospective employers."
  12. "Get your bachelor's degree AND a master's degree today for $1,200."