Online University Scams: How Do You Know if an Online Course Is Legit?

Online education has taken the world by storm. Traditional learning feels sluggish and outdated, while learning at your pace whenever you want is hip and useful.

As usual, humans went from one extreme to the other. So, while some stoically resist change and claim that learning in class is the only viable one, others think going to class is a relic of the past.

As you could guess, the truth is in the middle.

Online learning is a tremendous opportunity. Not having to adhere to a strict schedule and commuting is excellent. But some people prefer learning in person. They crave physical contact, and meeting people face to face.

That’s fine, we’re all different.

But, should you decide to pursue higher education online, there are some things you should pay attention to.

With the proliferation of online courses, some people smelled the opportunity to make a quick buck. They opened fake universities, claiming they could give you a degree in a short amount of time. Of course, they’d do it for a fee. A costly one.

These institutions are a scam. Don’t fall into their trap.

In this article, we are going to learn how to distinguish between a legit and a fake online university. Education is already expensive as is, and getting scammed makes you feel miserable. Not only because you wasted time and money, but because you feel a little stupid when it happens.

We’ve all been there, so don’t worry. Read this article to protect yourself and your loved ones.

How to Tell if an Online University is Legit or not

The scammers are getting progressively better at hiding their wrongdoings. They have websites that look legit, and some even fake things like accreditation. It’s not that hard to believe them. They sound legit on the surface. They are preying on your good faith.

The Federal Trade Commission has an entire article about college degree scams. That’s how bad it’s gotten. But these types of scams have been around for more than a century. Nothing new under the sun.

We compiled a list of things you should check before enrolling in an online university. If you pay attention to these factors, you’ll easily be able to distinguish a scam from a legit program.

1. Accreditation

Accreditation is the first thing you should check. Is the online university accredited? Some go as far as faking their credentials.

Luckily, you can easily double check if the school’s accreditation is real. Start from the Council of Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) website. They have a list of all accredited colleges and universities in the United States.

You can also cross check if a real agency awarded the university’s accreditation. There is a list of federally approved accreditation agency on the CHEA website.

Do your due diligence, and you’ll safeguard yourself from potential frauds.

Warning: If the school isn’t accredited, it doesn’t count as a proper school. This is true even for schools that aren’t trying to scam you. Some of these are trying to offer good schooling, and might be in the process of earning their accreditation. Others are called “diploma mills”, places where people pay for their degrees.

2. Is the Program Realistic?

Some people have the gall to claim you’re getting a degree in a year. Others blabber nonsense such as promising employment right out of school.

While it’s true that a good college almost guarantees employment out of school (check our Harvard’s employment rates right out of school for example, they are always above 90%), it’s also true that nobody can promise employment. Not even Ivy League schools.

If it sounds too good to be true…it probably is. Don’t get lured by promises of easy licenses and employment. They are there to rope you into signing up to them.

For the record, accelerated degrees actually exist. But they still take at least a year or two to get. These scams try to convince you they can get you a degree in months. Some go as far as promising a degree within weeks.

Some of these programs go one step further. They promise an accreditation for a tiny fee. Then, after you’ve completed the course, they’ll keep your (fake) license and tell you to pay an exorbitant fee to get it.

That’s the biggest red flag ever. If it happens to you, give them the middle finger and never talk to them again.

3. They Try too Hard to Sell their Courses

This is a massive red flag. Yes, most universities try to sell their courses. That’s fair. But what these fake online universities do borders on desperation. They are pitching you super hard. They speak ill of real universities. They try to lure you with empty promises.

Snake oil salespeople always existed. Online education is the new snake oil. Do not purchase from someone who is trying to sell you an expensive online program at all costs.

These tactics might seem obvious if you know how to spot them. But plenty of people fall for them every year. Also, general marketing budget is also telling of the university’s legitimacy. Real universities market themselves, but not to the extent fake ones do.

Again, it’s a matter of doing your due diligence before enrolling. Look for independent sources like review sites. You can start from generic ones, or go straight to one specialized in reviewing universities.

4. They Have a Suspicious Name

Often these fake online universities will borrow their name from more reputable sources. For example, they could take Harvard’s name and call themselves something like Harvard’s Institute for Nutrition Science.

That’s complete baloney. Don’t fall for this trick. Just because there is a recognizable name, it doesn’t mean the institution is legit. Check the university’s website, and look for the department or institution of the school you are checking out. If you don’t see it, they are trying to scam you.

If you are still unsure, just email the university. They’ll gladly tell you if the department is legit or not.

5. Non-existent Professors and Locations

This is by far the funniest part about online university scams. They use fake teachers. Sometimes they use “real” ones (as in they steal their content), but they are impossible to contact. Unsurprisingly.

This is a pretty obvious sign of scam, but people still fall for it. On one hand, it’s amusing. On the other one, it’s pretty sad.

Some university don’t even bother with putting an actual address on their website. Seriously? Some people still fall for these scams. Incredible.

6. Are there Credible Reviews about the Program?

Having reviews is not enough. Reviews can be bought. It’s easy to figure out which ones are organic, and which ones are fake.

Fake reviews are exceedingly positive and never go into the details. Or they are 1-star reviews without text. That’s actually pretty normal if you think about it. Writing a negative review requires you to point what went wrong, and why.

Whereas you can just say “best university ever!!!” and your review is done.

Look for reviews that offer a real critique of the program. They can still be faked, but scammers aren’t the sharpest tools in the shed. So, they rarely bother with trying to actually look legit.

Also, don’t look for just one place for reviews. Check multiple channels. Make it a point to be 100% sure the university is legit before enrolling.

What if You Are already Enrolled?

You can be the most attentive person in the world and still fall prey to the dishonest tactics of these people. That’s unfortunate, but it is what it is.

What should you do if you enrolled in one of these schools?

First, if you are an excellent negotiator you may attempt to get at least part of your money back. You never know. Some people will give you something back if you say you can’t attend anymore. It’s a long shot, but it’s better than nothing.

Second, since you are enrolled in something that doesn’t exist, you can walk away at any moment.

Third, report them to the authorities. Provide evidence of what they did to you, their tactics, and whatnot.

Once you have done all of that, there’s not much for you to do. Perhaps the authorities will crack down on the school’s activities and get you your money back. Or maybe not. You’re not in control of your money’s fate at this point. It is what it is.

Are Fake Degrees Problematic?

Yes. Not only they tarnish education’s reputation, but you’re also worse off for having them. If an employer finds out your degree comes from one of these fake institutions, they’ll question your integrity. You can say goodbye to your job.

In fact, it’s illegal to lie about academic credentials. Your employer could sue you. Don’t run that risk. It’s already hard enough to get a job and live a good life as is.

It’s better to not have a degree at all, than one from a fraudulent university.


Falling for an online university scam is easier than it sounds like. I know plenty of people who thought they wouldn’t have fell for one in a million years. And then they did. Poor little souls.

Getting scammed results from ignorance and negligence. You have no excuse for either. The internet gives you all the information you need.

If you have been scammed, immediately end your communication with the scammer. Don’t let them talk you back into their claws. Accept you’ve been tricked, and move on with your life. Don’t waste time with these people. They are unreliable and disgusting.

The best thing to do is do a comprehensive check before enrolling into university.

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