Diploma mills have been around for a long time, giving spurious degrees to gullible or unethical students. In the age of the Internet, however, they have become more sophisticated and more difficult to spot. A legitimate online education program can give you invaluable job skills and a credential that can open professional doors. A fake online degree program can waste your time and money, cause you professional embarrassment and even get you into legal trouble.

Learn what is required by a real degree program. Authentic degrees usually require 2 to 4 years of coursework. In your online classes, you will have to turn in assignments, take tests and do all of the other things that students have to do. A degree program that promises to send you your degree immediately, or after only a few weeks of class, is worthless.

Look for detailed online descriptions. Real, accredited degree programs will maintain online course catalogs describing the courses offered, along with the cost of and credits for each course. They will also have detailed information about prerequisites for each class, assignments and related matters. You may have to request this information,or it may be up on the website. Degree mills, in contrast, are vague about what they require.

Check to see if the program is accredited. For a degree to be valid, it has to be accredited by a recognized accreditation board. Check the link in Resources for accreditation boards recognized by the U.S. Department of Education.

Make sure the school has an actual mailing address. Some diploma mills will not give you their address, but instead use the address of a third-party business. Others will frequently change their name to disguise their identity. A real online college will reveal where it is located, how long it has been running and other pertinent information

Check with businesses and professional organizations. Most people pursue an online degree program to get professional training, but that training is only worth as much as the school's professional reputation.