Last year, I wrote a column titled “To What Degree Does Your Degree Matter.” What was true then holds true today: many organizations still regularly refuse to consider candidates who do not have a degree for executive and managerial positions. This is consistent across both public and private sector organizations.

Acquiring a higher-level education is time consuming and expensive, and fraudsters have long been marketing fast-track ways to obtain what appears to be an impressive diploma, at least on the surface. These programs and methods have been around for many years; therefore, it is not always easy to identify what is real and what is a wasted investment of your money and time.

Legitimate online degrees became much more readily available via the internet, and that pathway to education was – not unexpectedly – similarly exploited by so-called “fake degree” programs. An internet search will return an astonishing number of results where you can buy official looking copies of degrees and transcripts.

There is a long history of investigation into these schemes. Between the early 1980s and 1990s, the FBI conducted an extensive investigation (Dipscam) and collected more than 12,000 records of fake degrees obtained by government employees. Then in 2001 the General Accounting Office (GAO) conducted a study on this same issue within the government, and in 2004 the U.S. congress held hearings on the extent of this problem. Both the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) and the U.S. military reported a disturbing level of individuals having received promotions based on fake diplomas.

Fraudulent online degree mills are clearly a problem, and some U.S. states have stepped up to the issue. Oregon, New Jersey and North Dakota have all adopted tough laws that include fines and jail time for using fake degrees to gain employment.

Given the extensive news coverage on the issue and related investigations, one might think that all state legislators as well as corporate HR departments would have raised awareness of the issue. Regrettably that has not been the case, and today these diploma mill operations are not just alive, but thriving. Their victims can be found worldwide. One example would be Saudi Arabia’s Council of Engineering that, in 2014, found that over 30,000 of their foreign engineers had fake degrees.

While working on various SMR recruitment projects, I have come across candidates who have degree-related issues. I recently interviewed a candidate who previously held a responsible position with a high-profile police agency. He applied for a Director of Security role, and when verifying his background, I learned he was using fraudulent education credentials. Unfortunately, this was not an isolated incident. I often see education claims from unrecognized colleges, and earlier this year SMR did some research into how people get taken in by these schemes.

One of the approaches the scammers use is to ask the student to write an extensive biography of their background including training and professional accomplishments. Copies of supporting documentation are submitted, and a degree is then awarded based on their life experience. In one instance, we found that the online university site had set up several fake accrediting organizations, which they also owned, to give the appearance of legitimacy. We delved further and were able to unwrap the registrations of the domains and companies associated with the university. We found what appeared to be direct connections to an organization in mainland China.

There are warning signs that signal the degree being offered is unlikely to be legitimate, and they include:

  • Offers for work or life experience degrees with no additional course work;
  • Degrees awarded for a flat fee;
  • No waiting, accelerated programs with no studies, exams or materials;
  • No interaction with professors either online or in a classroom setting;
  • Pushy high-pressure advertising tactics, telemarketers or offers for discounts or finder fees to bring in new students;
  • It is a virtual college with no actual business location; or
  • The name of the organization is either similar to a well-known institution or has a credible-sounding foreign name.

A degree from one of these entities will be problematic when you apply for a job. However, obtaining a degree from an unaccredited college or university can also cause issues. There are generally two types of these schools: One has actual brick and mortar facilities offering onsite classes, and the other uses online distance learning that additionally requires formal course work and exams. While some of these schools do obtain accreditation for perhaps one of their degree programs, that may not be the case for all of their offerings. Additionally, this does not retroactively confer accreditation to programs previously offered.

Employers often reimburse employees for higher learning classes, however some major corporations do not differentiate between accredited and unaccredited. This is at odds with other corporate employers that require your degree be from a government-recognized accredited school. Going forward, the challenge students from an unaccredited program face is that most accredited institutions will not accept credits for course work done or degrees achieved at unaccredited schools. Selecting a school with accreditation will always be the better choice regardless of whether you or your employer is funding it.

From the standpoint of prospective students, when it comes to educational credentials there are no shortcuts. Do your research. You want the time, effort and cost you expend to further your career in a positive fashion. Use online resources such as the Council for Higher Education Accreditation and the U.S. Department of Education to validate institutions.

From the employer perspective, the cost and potential liability of a bad hire coupled with the associated corporate reputational damage can be entirely avoidable. The facades of these education schemes are sure to become even more sophisticated, so it is critical that due diligence programs and policy controls be implemented. Hiring managers and HR professionals under pressure to fill roles need to be trained to recognize potential problems.

Being educated about education is smart business.