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Classic Spam: Diploma mills

The bottom line: This is yet another of those old-time con games that has crossed the bridge to the 21st century via the internet. Anyone who offers you a “degree” for little work on your part (or no work at all) is trying to scam you out of your money in exchange for a worthless piece of paper. Anyone (such as a propsective employer) who is sufficiently interested in whether you have a degree wil be able to investigate whether that degree was issued by a trustworthy institution.

How would you like to “earn” a college degree (or even a graduate degree) for your “life experience?” No tedious and time-consuming classes, no expensive textbooks, no frightening exams or wearisome theses. All you need is a credit card and a rundown of your life and career (and, in a pinch, just the credit card will do). Interested? Just keep an eye on your inbox for the next diploma mill spam.

“Diploma mill” is a derisive term for an operation that promises to provide college degrees (or college diplomas, at any rate) without any real work or qualifications on the part of the recipient. Diploma mills are not colleges, have no classes nor faculty, and are not properly accredited to award degrees. They’re basicaly selling you nothing more than a piece of paper (see the sidebar below), which is worth to you about as much as it cost to print it, although you may pay many thousands more for it.

The diploma mill is an old and moldy scam that dates at least as far back as 1876, when (according to Chrisopher Bahur) the sitting U.S. Comissioner for Education John Eaton described the racket as “...a disgrace to American education.”

Diploma mills and spam

Like many other elderly scams (including stock churning, chain letters, pyramid marketing, advance-fee frauds, and Ponzi rackets), diploma mills have found a new home on the public internet, where the costs to run the scam and the likelhood of exposure are far less than in more conventional venues.

Like most of these other scammers, most diploma-mill spammers run with an extermely low net profile — they typically use direct-to-MX mailing from various sources (possibly including open proxies) to send the mail, and they have no websites, and seldom even any return e-mail addresses (valid ones, that is). If you are interested in their crap, you have to call them on the old-fashioned telephone. Although some of these outfits are more technologically ambitious, as you can see from an interesting presentation from George Gollin at the University of Illinois, most of the ones I run into just use very simple spams like the one below:

Starting a new Career is very simple with Career Path Experts (CPE)

All you have to do to get started is qualify for our University Degree Program.
The program is only 2 weeks and could land your dream job.
Some jobs include:

1) Human Resource Managemnt Director - $105,000 anually
2) Automotive Management Counsellor - $84,000
3) Chemical Power Controller - $98,000

With the right qualifications you can get in the door for jobs like these.
Call now to see if you qualify for your degree in many of these exciting careers.

Area Code: 2O6
Phone Number: 333-OO51

Encrypted Message Security Enabled {qGH235lQyjOiPDvUirhLZqN519BeFdfMHs5G606QJItPzOQ49

Note that you’re promised your degree in “only 2 weeks,” just about the time it would take to drive down to Kinko’s and run off another copy of the standard form and put it in the mail to you. Two weeks is just a wee bit shorter than the four-to-five-year baccalaureate programs at most colleges and universities.

I love the jobs mentioned by this particular ad — just what in hell is an “Automotive Management Counsellor?” Sounds like what they call the service writers at high-class import car dealers.

What’s wrong with a diploma-mill degree?

Okay, so you may pay a few bucks for a sheepskin that you know is phony, but where’s the harm, particularly if it helps you get in the door for a job interview or two? After all, it’s your job performance that ultimately counts, and not some piece of paper, right?

By way of answer, I invite you to consider that the more necessary a degree is for a job you want, the greater the likelhood that someone somewhere is going to check up on that degree of yours. For example, if you’re applying to be a university professor (a job for which specific academic credentials are a pretty inflexible requirement), don’t expect your “store-boughten” degree to stand up under any sort of scrutiny. They’re not just going to accept a Xerox copy of your diploma, they’re going to want to go straight to the institution that issued it and get the info for themselves.

Even if your employers don’t check your credentials when they hire you (which is often the case even in many high-paying professional jobs), your phony vitae may come back to bite you in the gluteals at some point: I’ve known at least two folks who were fired from their jobs over forged or dubious qualifications; possibly this lying wasn’t the only reason for their departure, but it sure made the firing easier.

How can you spot a diploma mill?

Here’s a list of the sorts of things you’ll see in diploma-mill promotions:

  1. You’re promised a degree based entirely (or mostly) upon vaguely-defined “life experience.”
  2. The pitch makes it sound more like your degree will be purchased, rather than earned.
  3. Most of your work (if you have any work at all) will be “independent study” or “online participation,” rather than supervised (and graded) classrom, laboratory, or field work.
  4. You’ll get your degree in a very short time (weeks or days) after application.
  5. The college issuing the degree is not named or has a suspicious name (e.g., “The University of Southern North Dakota at Hoople” or “The College of Washington and Brenda Lee”).
  6. You can’t find info (e.g., from a web search) on the school’s locations, programs, faculty members, etc.
  7. The institution doesn’t claim any accreditations, or claims ones that are phony.
  8. The contact info for the institution is nothing more than a phone number or perhaps an e-mail address.
  9. The pitch makes specific promises as to the kinds of jobs you can get (and even salaries, as above) after you receive your degree.

Finally, consider my spam rule #1a: the fact that you got the offer via spam should be sufficient grounds to reject it.

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(c) 2003-2007, Richard C. Conner ( )

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Updated: Sat, 18 Aug 2007