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The Online School Scams Keep on Coming

Online schools are fantastic. There are so many benefits of online schools that it's hard to know where to begin... that is, as long as the online school you pick is a good one. Unfortunately, every day more and more people get scammed by a booming underground industry of "colleges" that equate to nothing more than diploma mills devoid of content.

This week, ABC News investigates how online college scams have affected the lives of everyday people, and what led them to sign up in the first place. 59-year-old medical assistant Diane Cerulli, praised for years by friends and family for her knack with medicine, was drawn in by the promise of something more: "'I always wanted to be a doctor, and I thought this was a dream come true,' [she] said... After taking the multiple-choice test, Cerulli received a letter from Belford University, one of many online schools that purport to be accredited. It read: 'You are now a doctor. Diplomas and paperwork will be mailed to you after you pay $1,400 for the degree.'

"Cerulli said, 'Foolishly, I did that. I was told I could see patients and prescribe medicine. What was I thinking?'"

She might have been thinking about the overall prevalence of online colleges -- according to the article, a survey from the Sloan Consortium and Babson Survey Research Group recently displayed that "3.9 million students were enrolled in at least one online course in 2007, a 12 percent increase over the previous year." With that amount of students enrolling in -- or interested in -- the prospect of distance learning, there is no shortage of pickings for scam artists to prey on those uneducated in their methods.

So, how can you tell? For one thing, if the process looks to easy, it probably is. College is hard work, and there is no shortcut. "I knew something was wrong because the test was too simple," said Debra Harris to ABC News, upon completing an online test for a life experience-based high school diploma. "It was multiple choice, and if you didn't get it right, you could go back and do it again. Everybody passes." Another red flag: a P.O. Box for mailing, with a physical address in a different country or that can't be found at all. One college under investigation by the Better Business Bureau in the article had a mailing address in Arizona and a home office in Sonora, Mexico.

Most importantly: accreditation is key. Only accredited online schools will be recognized and accepted by reputable institutions, and only the U.S. Department of Education has the power to determine which accrediting organizations are valid in the United States. Without accreditation -- and valid accreditation at that, so do your research if the website says otherwise -- even colleges requiring minimal actual work may be a waste.

The Better Business Bureau may do its best to shut them down, but online school scammers will be around for as long as online schools continue to exist. That said, the best offense is a good defense. So do your research and know your red flags, and you can avoid becoming a statistic.

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