Buyer Beware: Online Degree Scams and the 5 Warning Signs

By Jon Wurtmann

If an online high school or college degree program looks too good to be true – take a deeper look.  That’s what the Better Business Bureau is advising all prospective students looking into online learning or degrees. 

In particular, the BBB listed 5 “Red Flags” that should arouse suspicion, and should be avoided at all costs.  It says that schools and institutions that feature the following are usually nothing more than “diploma mills,” and that the “diplomas” are actually worthless.

BBB cites the following red flags to help identify diploma mills:

  • Degrees or diplomas are awarded based on “life experience” and require very little or no work.
  • The institution guarantees you will receive a degree or diploma within a few days, weeks or months.         
  • The institution offers deals if you sign up to receive more than one degree at a time, such as a Bachelor’s Degree and a Master’s Degree for one low price.
  • Addresses for administration buildings include P.O. boxes or suite numbers.         
  • Prices are stated per degree instead of per credit hour.

Diploma mills have lured many prospective students with their easier standards, and multiple choice tests, and credit for “life experience.”  But if the “degree” isn’t from an accredited institution, then the entire experience has been a waste of time and money.  Saddest of all, however, is that these scammers are sullying the names and reputations of legitimate online learning institutions.

This is happening in a new learning climate, where online education has gained tremendous popularity with working adults and young families.  According to a BBB press release:

Distance learning and online-based classes have become an increasingly popular option for students of all ages. According to a 2008 survey from the Sloan Consortium and Babson Survey Research Group, 3.9 million students were enrolled in at least one online course in 2007, a 12 percent increase over the previous year. More than 20 percent of higher education students were taking at least one online course. Unfortunately, not all institutions offering online diplomas or degrees are legitimate and individuals looking to get ahead are being duped by diploma mills.

“Education is one of the keys to advancing in life and having a diploma or advanced degree can certainly make a difference when it comes to getting into college or landing a higher-paying job,” said David Polino, Better Business Bureau president. “While the Internet facilitates learning through online curriculum, it also makes it easier for scammers to shill their phony high school diplomas and college degrees.”

The Bureau lists several of the worst offenders

Belford High School and Belford University   The Houston area BBB has received 117 complaints from students in over 40 states who paid for high school diplomas and advanced degrees from BelfordHighschool.com and BelfordUniversity.org.

According to the Bureau:

Students were led to believe that Belford High School was accredited and that more than 99 percent of colleges would accept its diploma. Students paid as much as $674 and earned their high school diploma by taking an online test or by qualifying through “life experience.”

Belford University offers associate, bachelors and advanced degrees based on “life experience” including degrees in nursing, accounting, and even a Doctorate of Medicine degree which cost one complainant $1,400. In addition to receiving a diploma, students also received a phony transcript that claims they took classes such as Aromatherapy and Introduction to Aerosol Science.

Most people learned that their Belford diplomas and degrees were worthless from college admissions offices or military recruiters and several received the bad news during a job interview.

Jefferson High School Online and Vencer High School Online

The BBB has received complaints from consumers in from across the south and Midwest who say they passed Jefferson High School Online’s test and paid more than $200 to receive a high school diploma, only later to learn that it was invalid when they applied to college.

According to the Bureau:

The first part of the Jefferson High School test is a questionnaire that asks students several “life experience” questions, including what type of music they like, how often they listen to music or read and how physically active they are. Jefferson High School Online’s Web site says the answers on this portion of the test will count toward the students “elective and life experiences credits.” 

After students complete the life experience questionnaire they are given a multiple choice test in language arts, mathematics, science, and social studies. If a student answers a question incorrectly they are given a hint, and three more chances to select the correct answer from the four possible answers given for each question.

Jefferson High School Online is owned by MMDS Ltd., based out of St. Kitts, a small country in the eastern Caribbean. MMDS Ltd. also operates a Web site called Vencer High School Online. Aside from using a different name, the site is an exact replica of Jefferson High School, and offers the same services.

Don’t make the mistake of opting for an “easy” degree – it may not be legitimate.  Be sure to check the institution out with your local BBB online and get proof that the college or university you are enrolling in is accredited from one of the six regional accreditation boards. You can check with the DegreeAmerica searchable database of accredited post-secondary schools at: the School Directory.


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