These tips can help you tell if an online degree program is the real deal - and save you money

ABC13 talked to the Better Business Bureau, and there's even important evidence to look for to determine the real from the fake.

Brittaney Wilmore Image
Monday, August 14, 2023
These tips can help you tell if an online degree program is the real deal - and save you money
The Better Business Bureau warns of what online learners can do to spot diploma mills or online degree scams before they spend - and potentially lose - any money.

Learning is a lifelong process, but you may not have the time to head back to a physical school campus to do it.

If you're thinking about taking classes online for your career or personal reasons, you'll want to make sure you don't waste your time or hard-earned money on a program that's not legitimate.

While diploma mills and fake degrees aren't new, that doesn't stop them from popping up.

Retired FBI Agent Allen Ezell once ran Operation Diploma Scam, or Operation Dipscam for short, to target these schemes.

Ezell told Forbes in February, that he estimates these mills do about $7 billion a year in sales worldwide, with much of that in the United States and the Middle East.

In an instance in January of this year, federal charges were brought against four people in Harris County. They were accused of selling fake nursing diplomas to thousands of people as part of a larger multi-state plot that investigators said peddled more than $100 million over several years.

READ MORE: Four Harris County residents face federal charges for allegedly selling fake nursing diplomas

The fake degrees allowed aspiring nurses to take shortcuts, something the Better Business Bureau warns is the first red flag. In other words, don't fall for anything that promises to be quick and easy. Real programs should have detailed information about the expected coursework. Also, take the time to contact the institution. If you don't get the answers you're looking for, walk away.

Watch out for anyone requiring a flat, upfront fee. Typically, costs depend on number of credits or courses you take each semester so to say that you'll get a degree or certification immediately after paying isn't realistic.

Third, be sure that the school or program is accredited. And if it is, check by which agencies. The agency matters because a fake business can create a fake accreditation. The BBB says there are certain websites to check before you enroll.

"There are certain agencies like the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, where you can check to make sure a public or private university is accredited with them. Also, the U.S. Department of Education has their site,, where you can check on accreditation there. And if it's a trade school, you can even check with the Texas Workforce Commission and verify their accreditation with that particular agency here in Texas," said Leah Napoliello, Vice President of Investigations and Public Affairs at the BBB Of Greater Houston, South Texas.

There is evidence you can look for to determine if a program is the real deal. That evidence, the BBB says, is student services. Colleges will always have student resources, such as a page for the library, a list of classes, a staff directory, and advising.

Be suspicious if these don't exist or if there aren't any resources for students to show substantial coursework and interaction with professors.

"So you should check to see, you know, the coursework that's involved, the programs, the success rates for people who graduated from the particular education program. Also the professors. A legitimate institution would have all of that likely on their web page or in brochures they could give you," said Napoliello.

While there are legitimate for-profit institutions, you should still take the time to investigate and check reviews. Did the people who completed the coursework receive the necessary certification at the end of it?

If you come across a fake program, report it to the Federal Trade Commission. You can also notify the Texas Attorney General's Office and the BBB. In fact, you can visit to read complaints and reviews on schools.

Lastly, if you did pay for a program that turns out not to be as advertised, and you used a credit card, you might be able to dispute those charges with your credit card company, adds Napoliello.

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