In a time where everyone seems to have a degree, people are going to extreme lengths to get one. Yet, some people in the business of spreading knowledge aren’t in it for your growth and development; they are in it to make big bucks. These same people, better known as con-artists, pose online as legitimate higher learning institutions. They all promise that you, yes you, can get a degree in as little as a week or so for just a small payment of $499 dollars and, in some cases, a list of “life experiences” you need to be evaluated for credit. While the price may vary, the scam is almost always the same.

Don’t get me wrong. Applying experiences from one’s life in the hopes of getting college credit is a legitimate practice at accredited, decent colleges and universities. In fact, portfolios are often required to prove legitimacy of experiences for faculty review–but this isn’t the same as using them to gain credit. You won’t find any checks and balances at a degree mill, and you definitely won’t find accreditation.

Degree mills sell you a dream, and sometimes a realistic looking piece of paper. You’ve probably seen the advertisements on websites you frequent or as pop-ups on your computer. Simply typing into Google “cheap degrees” brings up thousands upon thousands of hits. Some websites boast prices as low as 30 dollars for a realistic diploma that no one would ever be able to tell was fake, and yet these institutions get figured out and shut down every day. According to the book Degree Mills: The Billion-Dollar Industry That Has Sold Over a Million Fake Diplomas, “there are more than 3,300 unrecognized universities, worldwide, many of them outright fakes, selling bachelor’s, master’s, doctorates, law, and medical degrees to anyone willing to pay the price.”

Often they prey upon people who had to drop out of school but can’t get the same opportunities without a college degree. It is not unusual to find owners of one of these diplomas in a state of desperation, having been told they’d be passed up for a promotion if they didn’t come into their office with a bachelor of arts to show. Some of the people making these purchases end up very well known to the public. Other people, simply don’t want to feel left out or inferior, so they purchase a degree, if only to make themselves or the people around them feel better.

If you’ve seen these advertisements before, or you’re looking into alternative ways to get a degree but value honesty, decency, and integrity, there are certain things you should look out for to be certain you aren’t being scammed by a diploma mill. I’ve outlined how to identify them below.

1. The programs are too short.
If a college advertises that you that you can get a degree in as little as nine weeks, it probably isn’t a legitimate institution of learning.

2. The school address is a P.O. Box.

3. Your school of choice has many complaints about it online.
Always check for this first. See what other information you can get on any school you’re interested in before even thinking about signing up.

4. Tuition is charged by degree cost.
If there is a set fee that you pay upfront for the entire degree program, you’re probably dealing with a diploma mill scam, so run away quickly.

5. The school is marketed toward US citizens but is located in a foreign country.
If the address isn’t a PO box, it’s often a foreign address. Diploma mills have been operating all over the world in places like Pakistan, Nepal, the US, and India, to name a few. Do not pay a school out of the country and expect them to give you a degree that is accredited by US standards.

6. No accreditation, or fake accreditation.

These schools usually boast that they are accredited but are often not. Sometimes, they even make up their own accreditation agencies. That is why you also should do strong research about the institution you’re interested in. GetEducated and The Department of Education have advice on these issues and a list of fake accreditation organizations diploma mills have used. Always verify information with the Council on Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA).

7. Admission criteria is lenient.
If the only requirement for acceptance is someone with a pulse and a credit card, I hate to tell you but… you’re probably dealing with a phony university.

8. You can’t find any information about faculty on the school site or the people listed aren’t legitimate.
Sometimes, you’ll be unable to find any information or credible information about faculty. Some diploma mills have gone as far as to copy and paste information from other websites and attempt to pass them off as their own. Be very skeptical and do your due diligence.

The point of this post is to be able to identify diploma mills and fake degrees, and then proceed to avoid them like the plague. The risk is too high to put your faith in someone breaking the law, and parading an illegitimate degree as the real deal can do nothing but hurt you in the long run, as several news reports have proven. In February of 2010, a man in New York was arrested for having used a fake degree to land a high-paying job. Just recently, in March of this year, authorities in India arrested three men for selling fake degrees and certificates. A Delhi law minister resigned his post after it was discovered his degree was fake. And, in one of the biggest cases of the year, an Axact chief was arrested in Pakistan over a faux diploma business scandal. Do you want to be famous for being guilty of this behavior? I didn’t think so.

So do things the right way: go to a legitimate higher learning institution.

Sources: EmployeeScreenIQ, Hindustan Times (2), The New York Times, GetEducated.com (2), Federal Trade Commission, Degree Search, diplomafraud.com, and U.S. Department of Education