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Friday, September 05, 2008

Would You Like a Free Degree With That? The Online University Bait-and-Switch

bait-n-switchHow would you like to earn a doctorate in record time, or a master's degree in less than a year? Sounds great, right? And think of the convenience to you when you discover that you don't even have to look for a university that offers these phenomenal program, they'll come right to you, sometimes while you're interviewing for a job.

If you've spent any time hunting for jobs online, you've probably answered an ad or two that sent you to a company like Career Network, where you had to sign up for an account in order to send your resume to the job poster. I found an ad through Yahoo Hot Jobs for a teaching assistant position at a private school I'd never heard of. Private schools often pay better than public schools, so I tried to apply. I was redirected to www.careernetworkjobs.com and asked to register with the site for my resume to be considered for the job. A little bit of a hassle, but I was willing to spend a few minutes filling out yet another application. I uploaded my resume and, within a few days, Career Network left two garbled messages on my phone about a job interview (from an out-of-state area code) and an email that said, "After reviewing your application we have determined that you meet our initial employment requirements."

I was a little unclear on whether I'd gotten the job or not, so I called the number that left the two cryptic messages and was transferred from New York State to an employment pre-screener in Orlando, who explained that his company was contracted to interview prospective employees and send the best applicants on to the next stage of the interview process. It was like being on a strange game show where the only questions you get asked are your name, address, and "Do you have plans to continue your education?" I confirmed my information and said, sure, I'd love to continue my education if I could afford it, who wouldn't? Not only did this get me to the next round of the interview process, I activated the special bonus round, and the pre-interviewer said,

"You sound like someone who cares a lot about his education, so I tell you what I'm going to do... I'm going to transfer you to someone at one of our partner companies who can find an online, accredited university that can offer you financial aid and help you finish your education."


Perhaps I should have been skeptical. I'd never been on a job interview that offered me higher education before, not even on a pre-interview. I certainly liked the sound of what they were offering. I'd exhausted most of my financial aid options getting my bachelor degree, and it was fast approaching the time when Sallie Mae would be asking what her investment in me had produced, aside from an out-of-work English teacher.

A new voice came on the line, and I was introduced to a no-nonsense woman from Education Connection, a company that would find me the perfect online university. All I had to do was tell them what I wanted a degree in. A master's in Psychology? No problem. She found just the school for me, with exactly the program I was looking for, at Capella University. Someone from admissions would be contacting me within the week, she said, and that was the end of the call.

It was a little strange to me that I'd called to interview for a teaching assistant job and somehow ended up applying to an online university, so I googled Capella University to see what I'd gotten myself into. Capella University was, according to my research, an accredited university. They even had a website with an .edu domain, something which most diploma mills, for-profit scam factories that take your money and give you a degree without even pretending to offer a legitimate education, couldn't manage. Was it possible to be an accredited university and still be a scam?

I asked a friend of mine who recently earned a master's degree the hard way, defending her thesis in front of a room full of professors, and she said, "It's been my experience that most online universities aren't taken seriously by the academic community." Keith L., a business professional on Yahoo Answers had this to say about job applicants with online universities on their resumes,

"...Given two applicants were equal, I would almost always give the edge to someone who went to a reputable school over someone [who got a degree from an online university] like Walden University. It’s easily the lowest rung of higher education out there. Maybe someone can create a Tier 5 for them to inhabit."


There are easily thousands of people online who claim to be working hard on their Capella University classes, and others who've earned degrees from online schools like this who believe they worked hard for them, but you'll find just as many students who felt cheated and ripped off by their online school, especially when they find out their school retains faculty that earned their degrees at schools like Lacrosse University, which is fully unaccredited as opposed to merely questionable. Disgruntled students from Capella University report being locked out of their online classrooms for spurious reasons, failing without explanation from their professors, and having additional fees sneak onto their tuition bill after being hounded by snake-oil selling admission counselors day and night to earn a degree at Capella.

It's been over a week since I was "interviewed" for that job, and I've heard nothing from the school that posted the ad, if they ever existed in the first place. On the other hand, I've gotten two or three calls from Capella university every day and just as many emails touting the school's excellent financing options. When I was considering attending the University of South Florida, no one called to try and sell me on the school. When I was thinking about buying a new car, on the other hand, dealers fell over each other to get in touch with me and convince me they had the best financing, but even a used car salesman won't barrage you with phone calls like an online university.

The worst part is that for many people of limited means, online universities dangle the dream of a college degree and full financial aid, never letting on that most employers will consider that degree a joke, even if you did work your tail off for it. Not every online university is a diploma mill, but it's absolutely true that a degree from a university that is entirely based online will not carry the same weight as a traditional degree. And how could they, when the schools that offer them do their recruiting with phony bait-and-switch job ads and daily phone and email spamming until you talk to one of their admission counselors/salespeople?

If you really value your education, do yourself a favor and get an associate degree from your local community college and financial aid through their financial aid counselors. Then apply to a real brick and mortar university as a transfer student. Don't get suckered by free financing and a new set of radial tires.

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Thursday, September 04, 2008

How to Get Paid and Go Broke Without Really Trying: A Job Offer Scam to Watch Out For

scamSometimes when you're desperate, the right job just falls into your lap, and if you're really desperate, you may not realize you're being suckered into an international money-laundering scam.

I lost my teaching job this year because of county-wide budget cuts, which has put a severe financial strain on my family while I look for something to pay the bills until a permanent teaching job opens up. There aren't a lot of places where a BA in Creative Writing gets you more than minimum wage, so when I saw an ad for English teachers on Craigslist.org, I jumped at it.

Reply to: amfrank007@yahoo.com
Date: 2008-08-27, 11:26PM EDT

I need a good and reliable English Tutor for my Kids....Attracts Great salary and benefits...Send your resume.

Adalberto Martinez Frank


In a flash, my resume was on its way to Mr. Adalberto Frank, and within 24 hours, I received a response that made my poor, unemployed heart flutter.

Hello [real name censored] ,

Good to hear from you and sorry for the late response, I have been busy with work and family at the same time .I acknowledge receiving your application and your resume which is very impressive. Please be informed that you are among the three people shortlisted for the teaching job.

Note: The teaching lesson will take place in my residence and here is the address where we will be living in the US and We will be arriving precisely by September 9th

6500 International Drive
Orlando, FL 32819
My childrens' name are John and Prisilia (A boy and a girl). We are originally from Spain but right now in the UK, my children speak little of the English language and i want my children to be tutored together for 6hrs to 10hrs per week. My children always get along together and they are very active. I can offer $30 per hour for both children because i want the best to prepare them to start school at fall.

I want you to reply me with the following details below 1. The days in the week you will be available to teach the children and numbers of hours per day starting from september 10. The children are available to be tutored any time and any day during the weekdays and weekends. 2. Your suitable charges per hour for both children if $30 if not suitable for you. Also your total charges per week because i will like to make payment weekly 3. The total cost of gas/transportation to my residence per week.
Regards
Adalberto Frank


Maybe I should have been suspicious that he found my resume so impressive. I'd only taught high school English for a single year, after all, and from what he was saying, he needed someone with ESOL (English as a Second Language) teaching experience. But the money was too good to pass up. $30/hour was more than I'd made during my teaching year. I couldn't softball how much it was going to cost to drive to Orlando, otherwise it would end up costing me more in gas to tutor the kids than I was being paid, so I sent back a lengthy reply, hoping that my transportation costs didn't bump me right off the short list. I mean, he could easily find someone in Orlando with at least as much teaching experience as me, right? And why was he looking for English teachers in Tampa anyway if he was moving to Orlando? I didn't dwell on these questions for very long because the prospect of a paying job was intoxicating. It didn't matter if it meant two hours of daily commute for the sum total of $300 dollars a week.

He replied briskly and apologized for the imperceptible delay in communication. Apparently, his father in Spain was very ill and that was occupying much of his time while he made preparations for the move. Then, he gave me the good news:

This is to notify you that you have been given a provisional appointment to be the English teacher for my children. You are selected based on your experience and passion to teach children.

A little background check was done on you this was to ensure that the data provided is accurate and that you have impeccable criminal-free record. (This is necessary because you are coming to be teaching in my apartment).

We will be arriving precisely by Sept.9th and the lesson begins on Sept 10th.
Here is our agreement:

1.Teaching for 10hrs/week.
2. That i will be paying you $540/week including Transportation as I prefer to pay weekly.
3. That you will tutor my children for 10hrs/ weeks for about 4weeks or more independing on catchups.Please confirm this agreement and let me know ASAP so i can arrange our commitment fee....

Frank Adalberto

Not only was he going to pay my travel expenses, he was going to pay me an extra $140 a week. I was floored. I had no idea what a commitment fee was, but I promptly agreed and ignored the fact that Mr. Adalberto Frank was now Mr. Frank Adalberto. He was foreign and wanted to pay me over two grand a month to teach his kids English. The commitment fee sounded like something I wasn't going to like, and I was prepared to turn the whole thing down if he wanted me pay some sort of nonsense fee just for the privilege of teaching his kids, but it turned out that he was the one paying the fee, which meant that I would be receiving a check in the mail for my first two weeks before I even met the guy and his kids. It sounded too good to be true, but he was the one paying, so there was no risk to me at all.

This is how I almost got suckered in. Frank, with his sick father and two young kids who needed a tutor, sounded incredibly convincing. His emails were frequent, his responses brief but direct. These weren't some spambot-generated, rote responses. I was talking to a real human being, so I didn't even think twice when he emailed me to say there'd been a mixup and the fee for the moving company was included in the amount his client paid me. Not to worry, he said, just cash the check and he'd let me know where to send the moving company's payment.

It's called an overpayment scam. According to the FBI agent I spoke to, the scheme is based overseas, with middlemen in the US to handle the checks. They offer you an advance on what you're supposed to be paid, then mistakenly send you a check for too much, usually double the correct amount. You cash the check and send it back to them via Western Union, and by the time your bank discovers that the check didn't clear, you're out of luck. The phony check gets cashed against your account, so it's your account that the bank will drain to cover the expense.

Once I realized this might be a scam, I did a search on the email address posted with the ad and was surprised to discover identical ads posted on lasvegas.craigslist.org and catholicjobs.com. Both were from amfrank007@yahoo.com and the Adalberto family, which meant that this was either a scam or three entirely different Adalberto families would be needing English tutors in San Francisco, Las Vegas, and Tampa. The very nice lady I spoke to at the FBI told me this was unlikely.

English tutors are not the only people at risk from these kinds of scams. I've seen postings from Math tutors, Spanish tutors -- and all of them answered similar ads from people who weren't always as convincing as Mr. Frank/Mr. Adalberto. But all of them eventually sent checks and all of them encountered similar mishaps that resulted in the overpayment of the would-be tutors. Right now it's tutors who are being targeted, but this sort of scheme is very easy to run on anyone who is happy to receive a fat advance and who is good-natured enough to return any money they weren't due.

If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. And if they're willing to pay you before they see you work, no matter how qualified you think you are or how much you're accustomed to getting, don't cash that check if it's for more than you're supposed to be paid. Just forward the information and the check to the FBI email fraud unit.

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