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Online courses: How to spot a FAKE degree

Last updated on: August 31, 2010 15:12 IST

Online courses: How to spot a FAKE degree


Dr John Bear

Earn your degree in 48 hours. Get a BBA now and earn an MBA after two years of work experience. Fully recognised! Advertisements like this are a dime a dozen in newspapers and magazines, and some of them even offer electronic delivery (wherein the degree is delivered by e-mail).

Recent research has estimated that the fake degree industry is worth over Rs 12,000 crore worldwide. In case of India, the UGC maintains a list of fake universities, but it does not provide you the list of online fakes. Careers360 requested Dr John Bear, a renowned authority on online degrees, to explain how to spot a fake degree grading institution.

There is no unanimity on what a degree mill is. No one denies that a 'university' operating from a mailbox service, selling diplomas to anyone, no questions asked, is a mill. But what if there were a requirement of one month of study and a 10-page thesis? Six months of study, 50 pages? Two years of study and 200 pages? Would it be still a fake university?

A survey of dozens of definitions of 'degree mill' found five relevant factors in determining school legitimacy:

  • What degree-granting authority does it have0?
  • Amount of work required
  • Quality of work required
  • Process for awarding credit for prior learning
  • Credentials of people who make decisions

Thus a degree mill can be defined as an entity in which:

  • The degree-granting authority does not come from a generally-accepted government agency;
  • Procedures for determining the amount and quality work do not meet generally-accepted standards; and
  • People making these decisions do not have relevant credentials, training or experience.

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Dr John Bear is a world-renowned authority on fake online universities and can be reached at

Photographs: Careers360

The mill-operators most popular tool: The apostille

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The Apostille is used to fool people in one country into thinking a fake diploma issued in another country is legitimate. The implications are significant for higher education, immigration systems (visas), and commerce (jobs, promotions, pay raises). The Apostille is simply an international notarisation or documentation.

Authorities in one location certify that the signature and seal on a public document from another location is an authentic copy. The Apostille Convention makes clear that, '...the effect of an Apostille does not extend to the content of the public document to which it relates.' One can take any document to a local notary service anywhere. The notary compares the signature on the document with the signature on a passport or driver's license, and if they are the same, will stamp and seal the document.

The notarised document is then submitted to a national agency which confirms that the original notarised document has a proper seal and signature, then issues the Apostille. At no point does anyone read the document. Apostilles are issued by various agencies: the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in the UK, the Department of State in the US, the Ministry of External Affairs in India, etc, and sometimes by embassies and consulates.

Scores of degree mills have used the Apostille process to fool students. They type out a statement that says they are licensed, accredited, approved and internationally accepted. That statement is locally notarised, then they get the Apostille and say, for instance, 'We are fully accredited and recognised by the government of the United States, as attested in a document signed by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.'

Image: Uttam Ghosh/

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Warning signs of a degree mill

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Many of the warning signs are self-apparent, if one is looking for them.

  • False or misleading recognition claims. Many people think that accreditation is a mark of quality. It can be, but there are more than 250 'accreditation mills' set up to accredit bad and fake schools.
  • Falsely depicting their campus. One mill used computer techniques to paste a sign atop a photo of the building where they rented one small office.
  • Ratio of degree programmes to faculty and staff. Mills typically offer degree programmes in hundreds of subjects, despite having at best a few faculty.
  • False or misleading memberships and affiliations.
  • False or misleading testimonials, typically written by the school owners themselves.
  • False alumni descriptions. Mills in existence for only a few months have claimed to have hundreds of thousands of graduates.
  • Misleading internet advertising and websites. One mill set up a website that was an exact copy of their country's Academy of Sciences, except they had the Academy endorsing their school.
  • Abuse of the Apostille process. The most widespread and effective tool used by degree mills.

Photographs: Uttam Ghosh/
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Credential evaluation

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These services evaluate degrees and credentials in one country, as they may apply to further education, licensure or employment in another country. They might be asked to determine if a Brasilian 'Bacharel' is equivalent to, higher or lower than a Japanese 'advanced diploma.'

While most services are reliable, there are renegade ones, established or supported by degree mills. They produce reports stating that the credential of a given mill is the equivalent of a traditional university degree. One solution is regulating such services, or forming a trade association with high standards. In the US, there is the National Association of Credential Evaluation Services to fill this need.

Another possible solution could be an expansion and refinement of the Bologna Process [], an affiliation of 4,000 schools in 46 European countries, that is working to develop consensus on the work required to earn various degrees, and a standardisation of degree titles. In case of India the listings are maintained by the Association of Indian Universities as well as the UGC and that of AICTE.

Consumer organisations
People wishing to learn more about a school can turn to a consumer advice and rights organisation, either governmental (often an ombudsman) or private.

Look on lists published by other organisations
A list of degree mills and current news about fake diplomas is maintained on a reliable private website called Diploma Mill News.

A book the author and his daughter have written on earning degrees by distance learning has chapters describing unaccredited schools and degree mills. While Bears Guide to Earning Degrees by Distance Learning is out of print, many libraries have it, and more than half the text can be found online without cost at

Photographs: Dominic Xavier/
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Develop your own information

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Telephone them
A simple 'detective tool' is telephoning a school during business hours. If there is an answering service, that is a clue. If a call at three in the morning produces a sleepy voice, answering, 'Hello,' that is another clue.

Who owns the website
Who established and operates the website. With degree mills, it is often a location other than where the school claims to be. The information is available without cost at If a school blocks that information, that is also a clue.

What is at the campus address
Entering the address into an internet search bar often yields information on the occupants of that address. If there is no university, but an office service bureau or mailbox service, that is a clue. One can use free internet aerial photo service, to see the what is at the address. Terraserver (, Google ( Google offers street-level photographs as well.

Business information
Many schools, good and bad, have the legal structure of a company or corporation. Information on who formed the company, where it is located, and who the officers and directors are, can be obtained from online government sources.

There is, in law, the concept of sumptuary, or so-called victimless crimes: gambling, prostitution, pornography, drugs, and now the sale of degrees and credentials. In each case, it is a matter of supply and demand. Because some people want the product or service, others will profit by making it available to them. This has gone on for centuries, and very likely always will.

The best hope of progress, however small, is to shine the light of publicity on the bad schools, the light of embarrassment on the people buying and using their degrees, and the light of knowledge on professional educators, to encourage them to defend and protect their worthy tradition.

Photographs: Dominic Xavier/
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Careers360 is a complete education and career magazine offering campus and course reviews, career features, scholarships, expert advisories, entrance exam preparation & solved papers, admission alerts and more.