Online Degrees: Schools Scam Aspiring Students

"The site was obviously designed to persuade skeptics that Belford is a legitimate school," said Alison Southwick of the national BBB. "The only people who can benefit from this site is Belford itself."

The technique is common among work-at-home scams and offers for the popular acai berry, according to Southwick.

Both Web sites are registered through DomainsByProxy, a registrant that hides the actual registrant.

Another Belford Web site offers other sites a "fixed referral commission" by posting the school's banner. A retired Italian professor boasts that he has earned more than $50,000 by referring Belford.

"Professor Claudio Bernardo's passion for making education universal wasn't over," says testimony on the site. "Driven by his urge to help out students in every possible manner, he remained restless until he found an effective way to fulfill his desire of continuing to serve education."

A YouTube video of Belford High School is also linked to other reassuring videos, such as "Fake Degrees: No Thanks, Life Experience Degrees." A duplicate of that video, "Fast Graduate," urges, "Because you better don't waste your time with fake degrees, scams or degree mills." Belford is not the only online school under investigation.

Online Tests Rejected by Colleges

James Phillips of Portsmouth, Ohio, struggled with getting ahead after dropping out of high school when he was only 17, working at a pizza parlor, furniture store and Wal-Mart.

At 21, married and with a 2-year-old son, he heard about a friend whose daughter had obtained a diploma online. Hoping to advance his career, he paid $270 to Jefferson High School Online and took a test.

"It was a basic math, reading and writing, an average test," said Phillips, who now works for the state's Department of Transportation.

After easily passing, Phillips was shipped his sheepskin. "It looked like any diploma I had ever seen," he said.

With that, he was accepted to Colorado Technical University, a legitimate online college where he was excited to start classes in business administration July 5.

Phillips had paid his fees and registration when the college called him to tell him he could not enroll because his diploma was not accepted.

He got his money back from the university, but not from Jefferson, and contacted the BBB.

Jefferson High School Online is owned by MMDS Ltd., based out of St. Kitts in the Caribbean. The same company operates a Web site called Vencer High School Online, which is a "replica" of Jefferson, according to the BBB.

Addresses Outside U.S. Are 'Red Flag'

"Their physical office is in Sonora, Mexico, and their post office address is in Nogales, Ariz., a huge red flag," said Nick LaFleur of the Southern Arizona BBB, which is handling the complaint about Jefferson High School Online.

Responding to a request for comment, MMDS "admininstration" wrote in an e-mail, "We respectfully decline participation in this project but we do proactively work to resolve all issues presented to us by customers and organizations such as the BBB."

The BBB has now closed down three fraudulent online schools -- but not Jefferson, Vencer or Belford.

"It's really disheartening because these people are trying to improve their lives, and you hate to see them taken advantage of when they are trying so hard," LaFleur told

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