The Federal Trade Commission charged two so-called online “high schools” this week, accusing them of tricking consumers into paying hundreds of dollars for a diploma while actually peddling “worthless” pieces of paper.

Cracking down on the alleged “diploma mills,” the FTC took the opportunity to remind consumers that even as online high school education has proliferated along with online universities, it is often a scam. The websites often promise to sell customers a high school equivalency certificate known as a GED for minimal coursework or a test that can be completed online.

But no U.S. state currently recognizes high school equivalency exams taken online as valid, and universities and employers typically don’t either, the FTC warned in a new scam alert.

In the case of the online programs accused Wednesday, which were operated by companies like Stepping Stonez Development and Capitol Network Distance Learning Programs, consumers paid fees of $135 to $349 for a supposed diploma. All they had to do in terms of lessons was take four online multiple-choice tests with no time limit and score at least 70% correct. But if they failed to get even that many questions right, the websites often directed them to retake a version of the test with the correct answers highlighted.

Sometimes, consumers earned “credit” for an accounting course if they checked a box saying they could balance a checkbook; other times, they could fulfill a music course requirement by clicking that they listened to songs occasionally. “If a company says you can get a diploma in no time at all or by simply taking an online test, it’s almost certainly a scam,” Jessica Rich, director of the FTC’s consumer protection bureau, said in a statement announcing the charges.


The FTC warned consumers to be aware of telltale signs of an online high school scam, such as claims that you can get a diploma without ever leaving home, or fees for the diploma itself but not the actual classes (at legitimate schools, it’s the other way around). “No classes? No in-person test? All online? That’s a scam,” the FTC’s alert says.

While states will award high school diplomas if students pass one of the four accepted equivalency exams (such as the GED), they always require that the tests be taken under the following conditions, according to the FTC:

  • administered in person
  • proctored
  • closed-book
  • scheduled for specific dates and times

Anything else simply won’t hold up at college or a job.