By Laura Rich

For Diane Cerulli, a medical assistant in New Jersey, getting a medical degree was a lifelong goal. So after spotting an online offer for a fast-track route to an M.D., she signed up, forked over $1,400, took a multiple-choice test and found herself a full-fledged doctor.

Except she wasn’t. Cerulli, like many others, was duped by a fraudulent online education offer. She was a victim of a diploma mill calling itself Belford University, an unaccredited so-called university set up to take students’ cash in exchange for a bogus certificate.

Despite its risks, online education can be affordable, convenient, and in some cases, even better at instruction than in-classroom learning. The number of students enrolled in online education jumped 17 percent from 2007 to 2008, according to the Sloan Consortium, a nonprofit focused on education. As online education continues to grow, would-be students should protect themselves by looking for these telltale signs of a scam.

Before you sign up …
How can you be sure the school you choose is legitimate? First, find out if it’s accredited. Since even accreditation agencies can be phony, the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) has published a list of nationally recognized accrediting agencies, which can be found on its website. You can also look for the DOE-funded Quality Matters seal on the websites of courses and colleges. This shows that a class has been certified by a peer-review organization.

Since online schools are businesses in their own right, they fall within the realm of the Better Business Bureau (BBB). The BBB points out these red flags that could indicate a shady organization. Look for:

  • Degrees that can be earned in less time than at an accredited post-secondary institution; for instance, earning a Bachelor’s in a few months.
  • A list of accrediting agencies that sounds a little too impressive. Often, these schools will list accreditation by organizations that are not recognized by the U.S. DOE.
  • Offers of college credits for “real world” experience rather than for course work.
  • Abnormal payment options, such as tuition based on a per-degree basis or discounts for enrolling in multiple degree programs. Accredited institutions charge by credit hours, courses or semester.
  • Little or no interaction with professors.
  • College or university name that is similar to well-known, reputable institutions.
  • Addresses that list PO Box or suite numbers. That “campus” may very well be someone’s personal mailbox.

Once you’re enrolled …
After verifying that the school or program you’re interested in is legitimate, arm yourself with knowledge about what will be expected of you and how you can take precautions as an online student with regards to:

  • Equipment. Most schools don’t require anything more than a computer and a modem. They may ask you to download software that will allow you to participate in a virtual classroom setting, where you can see or read the instructor’s live lecture and interact with other students. Discussion boards and instant messaging are also common tools in online education.
  • Identity verification. To protect your identity as well as verify it, online education systems require a unique login. Some even post a detailed questionnaire that only you should be able to answer.
  • Sending and receiving documents. Be extra careful whenever documents are sent from the instructor. Rather than downloading them to your desktop, open them in an online reader such as Google Docs, which opens the documents — and any potential viruses it contains — to the Web, not your computer.

Finally, even though the technology is set up to protect you and the school, it’s up to you to take care with other students. “Be cautious in socializing,” suggests Chris Duque, an Internet security expert and former computer forensics expert with the Honolulu Police Department. There’s always the chance that other students could be using online courses to get a lesson in identity theft.

Laura Rich is a Boulder, Colo.-based journalist who has written about technology for business and consumer audiences. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Fast Company, Wired, Advertising Age, and other business and technology publications.

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