Education scam
March 10, 2011 11:00 AM   Subscribe

I need suggestions on how to approach my wife with the information that the online educational program she is considering is likely a scam.

Without great specifics, the school wants 5 grand and they then send you an ipod where you get your first couple of lectures. They then send you new lectures every week. The course takes a year, they assign you a former grad as a counselor, and they set you up with a boilerplate website to get you up and running. They claim that one can make upwards of $200/hr. The only prerequisite for this school is having the money to pay for it. Topic related internet postings about this school all have the same cult-like quality. People making grandiose claims of the "power" of the course. How they were able to throw away their day job and enter this transformational career. Oh, and also if anyone wants to sign up to give them their name because they get a commission.

Why so vague and anon? I have implored her to do her own research into the school and I don't want this post popping up in her search. I have spoken preliminarily with her about my suspicions that this course of study is likely no more than a diploma mill. She reacted somewhat defensively referring me to the fact that related companies are hiring such individuals. In reality, those rare job postings require the individual to be far more educated in a traditional sense with traditional degrees that take years with accompanying practical experience that could never be gotten via online schooling. But this is a moot point because her ideal job is to be self employed with high paying clients and the flexibility to work her own hours.

My plan is to remain firm and point out the facts while continuing to validate her fulfillment needs and desires. Is there anything more I could do or say at this point with my wife when I think she is clearly being irrational if not outright delusional? This process is made slightly more complicated by the fact that she generally has (had?) a well calibrated BS meter (Ex. friend recently tried selling her Juice Plus pills and she knew right away it was bogus).

tl;dr Delusional spouse wants to sign up for online education scam. How do you approach the deprogramming?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (21 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.

First, is it an accredited institution? If so, what is the accreditation institution? Is that institution legit, and if so, call them to make sure they actually reviewed and supported this program.

Second, assk her to talk with actual grads who are actually employed, and then talk to their employers. Find out more about the supposed successes.

Third, you could try giving her links to "[Program]" is a Scam sites and forums, or find people on those sites who have been scammed, and ask them if they are willing to describe what they did and how it didn't work as advertised.

Good luck!
posted by filthy light thief at 11:05 AM on March 10, 2011

Also, don't tell her she's delusional. Support her desire for a better education, but you're worried it won't work as advertised, and you don't want her to waste her time here when she could be working towards an education at a fully accredited program. Don't focus on the money, because it seems that hasn't worked earlier.
posted by filthy light thief at 11:07 AM on March 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

I remember seeing a few lists of traits that make an organization more or less cult-like. It had things like controlling your physical location, limiting contact with non-members, assertions of infallibility, etc. The list acknowledged that any religion and many secular organizations will have a few of those traits, and everyone's trigger point will be different, but after a certain number build up, it's time to start disengaging or worrying about your loved ones.

This isn't an answer to your question, but it is a suggestion for a potential answer. Perhaps you could locate a similar list of traits common with educational choices that are poor returns on the investment. Then sit down together and attempt to rationally go through the list with your wife and see what happens. Maybe you'll be surprised! Or maybe she will.

At the very least, if approached in a fluid and non-judgemental way, with the spirit of honest inquiry, it might open the door for further conversation about better options.
posted by jsturgill at 11:16 AM on March 10, 2011

I had a friend who was also ready to sink several hundred dollars to get certified and become "insert dream work at home job here."

I just plugged tne name into google and immediately, the top few google hits were "scam, lost money, never got job", and forums full of people complaining.

Seriously, 90% of the hits were scam and the only one that was not was the company webpage.

I would try doing the same thing and then showing your partner what you find -- I don't think many people would proceed onwards if there is massive info pointing the other direction. This mystery dream job was medical transription by the way (the training sounds similar to what you list, plus the person had to buy a special CD and machine at the end.

You could also offer to support your partner if she does identify a viable route towards self-employment -- there are other ways to get there, but it may take a couple years and a little bit of economic sacrafice at the start.

Good luck.
posted by Wolfster at 11:24 AM on March 10, 2011 [2 favorites]

Support her desire to learn and her motivation. Suggest comparison shopping. "Wow, being certified to do _X_ would be neat, and you'd be good at it, because you have Y and Z skills. I wonder if there's an option that doesn't seem kind of sketchy. Local Community College has a course in that, it might be a good way to get an idea of what it's about."

Also, check with places like the Better Business Bureau and your and other states' attorney general's office. The provider might surprise you with a blemish-free record. Or, more likely, you'll find plenty of verifiable information that they're making promises they can't keep.
posted by theora55 at 11:27 AM on March 10, 2011

The worst thing you can do in this situation, if your goal is for her to listen to you, is be derisive, condescending, or disrespectful to her. I'm not saying that's how you are in your conversations with her because we haven't heard them, but I think you really need to try very hard to stay away from that if you want success here. Definitely do not use the words "delusional" or "irrational" or imply that she is those things.

I think it would be much, MUCH more successful to approach it from the angle: I want to help you achieve your goals, let's make them happen. Instead of how she may see it, that she is trying to achieve her goals alone and you're just standing on the sidelines sniping.

So, what she wants here is this: her ideal job is to be self employed with high paying clients and the flexibility to work her own hours.

So you could tell her: "Jane, I know that what you are working towards is a situation where you are self employed and have flexibility with your hours. I really want that to happen for you and I'm willing to work with you to make that a reality. I'm concerned that this program will not bring you closer to that, and the money could be spend on something else that would in fact help you reach your goal. If we find that this program would actually be helpful to you, then I will support it wholeheartedly. But I would really appreciate it if you would do one thing for me. You've mentioned job postings from companies who are hiring individuals with this degree. Please do me the favor of having at least two informational interviews with these companies, and ask them for their frank assessments of this program and whether the credential you'd receive would make you a good candidate for those jobs."
posted by Ashley801 at 11:29 AM on March 10, 2011 [3 favorites]

Quick googling found this list.

Things I would add to the list:

Do they have an infomercial? If yes, then it's likely not worth your time.

Do they have any prerequesites aside from money for enrollment? It no, then it's likely not worth your time. Even community colleges require a GED or High School diploma.

I think the most important thing is to work with her to find a better alternative. Don't just shoot this down, crap all over it, and make her feel like a chump. Redirect her to a school or course that isn't a scam. Make it clear that you support her and think her goals are worthwhile, and that you don't mind spending $5,000 on something she thinks important. You just don't want to see her spend $5,000 on something that isn't what she thinks it is.
posted by jsturgill at 11:32 AM on March 10, 2011 [3 favorites]

Good list. I would really focus on the .edu domain name.
posted by carter at 11:50 AM on March 10, 2011

If you do want to support her furthering her education, why not look into other educational programs? If she has a comparison basis, it might help.
posted by annsunny at 12:07 PM on March 10, 2011

I'm going to suggest a controversial approach. Want to spend $5,000 to not have this happen in the future? Let it happen now. If you're a couple and she isn't willing to have consensus before putting up $5,000 into what has a significant chance of being a scam, it will happen again and again. Let it happen this time and it will stick and be a cautionary tale. Sometimes people just have to learn things the hard way, sad to say. I was one of those people. I know you aren't likely to reply since this is anon, but contrary to your assertion of her b.s. meter, I'm betting this thing happens often, if you think about it, and you're just used to being the paranoid, concerned one. The questioin is, do you all have $5,000 to spare on this.
posted by cashman at 12:13 PM on March 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

Focus on the program and pick apart the various aspects of it. Scams work for so many people because they superficially sound great - critical analysis proves otherwise and that is what you need to do with your wife. But all analysis needs to be about the program.

If she gets defensive, reassure her that this is you just looking out for her, that you want her to be safe and sure about what she's getting involved in.

The more you question the program itself whilst providing her with the knowledge that you're there to help and support her, not cut down her attempts at furthering her education, the more she'll start to question the validity of the program herself.
posted by mleigh at 12:22 PM on March 10, 2011

If I were your wife and in this situation (although I imagine I would have done extensive research), I would want to know if I was really about to blow $5000 on a scam.
You would have to back this up with lots of links and "rip-off" reports, though. And not ones that just say, "THIS PLACE SUCKS AND IS A SCAM I DIDNT MAKE MONEY".

This would be better than you just saying "sounds like a rip off" (well, actually, if you were my husband and you did say that, I'd probably start wondering and research the "school" or whatever it is)

Probably another good thing to do would be to come up with some alternatives to show that you're not trying to ruin her dreams/education. Research some similiar courses through more legit educational institutes and show them to her.

So, since you are married and this is probably a good amount of money to be dropped, I would imagine this is something you should both be talking about (maybe?) and making an informed decision on.
posted by KogeLiz at 12:46 PM on March 10, 2011 [2 favorites]

Count me in on the crowd that says you should concentrate on accreditation and talking with potential employers. Had a similar situation which was diffused by having conversations about which employers she really wanted to be working for, and what credentials they took for such things. Cold hard "If you want job X, you need a degree from an institution that is accredited by one of these organizations. Start with their list of online programs and work forward." worked well, made all the standards external to me and my judgement on the various programs, and building credibility there allowed me to then start to make other suggestions.
posted by straw at 12:50 PM on March 10, 2011

I don't think there's a disconnect between being supportive and saying that a $5,000 expenditure is a big outlay and there needs to be compelling proof it's worthwhile. I think that's an easier conversation to have if you have some alternatives - ie, "wow that really seems like a lot of money for a totally remote course - what about the offerings from our local public university? I'd feel a lot better about us spending that kind of money on an accredited institution."

Accreditation is a good tack to take, I'd say. Look at who, if anyone, backs up this operation. Then look at who else they back up. By the company they keep you shall know them...

Money spent on training & education is an investment and should get the same level of scrutiny as any other. If you're supportive of her goals then you might have the best luck simply having an open-ended discussion about how to best achieve those goals together. If she really does have a good BS detector overall then I think opening this up and airing it out will serve you well. And if you're supportive of her dreams then this is a good way to help, this expenditure aside.
posted by phearlez at 1:10 PM on March 10, 2011

From your description it seems pretty obvious this is a scam, and you say she's usually not the one to fall for that kind of thing. People often give in to scams not because they really believe in them, but more because they play into an (irrational) fear or strong wish of some sort, and the want to believe in them. This prevents them to look at the scam critically, and your difficulty to talk to your wife about it may be a hint this is the case.
Maybe the best strategy would be to find out why she wants to go with the suspicious program, instead of going a more standard route to whatever certificate or job she wants. These scam programs often make it all sound really easy, 'just listen to the ipod lectures and get your dream job', maybe she has failed in school or collage earlier in her life and is scared of repeating that?
Just a wild guess, but you know what I'm getting at.
posted by Lynx at 1:10 PM on March 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

Oh boy. This exact thing happened to me earlier this week, except a) it was a good friend, not a spouse, and b) the $5000 educational program in question wasn't quite such a big scam, just very woo-woo and non-accredited and for-profit.

To my own surprise, I seem to have successfully talked my friend out of it. Contributing factors:

1) Friend openly asked for advice on Facebook, so I wasn't jumping all over a decision Friend had already made.

2) Friend was already weighing the woo-woo program against another, significantly less woo-ey (and non-profit) program, so I was able to say "To be honest, I don't feel very good about the School of Woo, but I'd feel a lot better about seeing you in Legit Program."

3) I didn't directly attack the woo (the substance/curriculum of the dubious educational program), because I know Friend is into the woo and doesn't distinguish it from evidence-based stuff the way I do. That's a conversation for another day.

4) I started by asking "Is School of Woo accredited?" Friend promised to look into the question, which got the conversational ball rolling.

5) I researched the School of Woo and presented Friend with several worrisome facts I'd gleaned about them, starting with "School of Woo is not accredited" and including quotes from their own website that didn't make them look good (e.g. "Is 'no prerequisites' really a good thing for a course in _____?"). I framed it all more as "this is why I don't feel good about seeing you in this program" rather than "this is why you shouldn't do this program."

6) I raised questions about the outcomes of the course. Friend knew people who had done it and been happy with it, but I asked how they were using their School of Woo diplomas. I searched Monster job ads for the career track that School of Woo supposedly prepares you for, and pointed out that most of the actual job listings required 2 years of experience in Field A, B, or C, and Fields A, B, and C all have really stringent credentialing/licensing requirements that would not be met by a diploma from School of Woo.

7) Throughout the conversation I let Friend know—quite truthfully—that I thought Friend's new career direction was a great idea, I could totally see Friend in these kinds of jobs, I thought Friend would be wonderful at them, etc. I said I just wanted to see Friend get a good start in this new career.

8) I also followed up with another suggestion for a legit program that I thought would match up well with Friend's interests and talents.
posted by Orinda at 1:21 PM on March 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

Mod note: This is a followup from the asker.
@cashman-- I had considered your confrontational approach. The problem is I have been down this road, to a degree, before. My wife, despite holding a Masters level degree in a very employable area, had years ago ruled out going back to her old profession because of the long hours. She has since been on a nearly decade long quest for the high paying flexible job of her dreams. I have fully supported some previous ventures into legitimate fields, full well knowing that she'd never become successful considering the amount of time she wants to put in to her actual career once she's actually up and running. Why did I support these ventures then? She was passionate about these ventures at the time and I wanted her to be happy. Plus, I could be wrong. So over the course of a decade or so, a couple grand here...a couple grand there were all, in retrospect, wasted, but at the time seeing the passion and happiness in her eyes made it all worthwhile. Unfortunately, there always is a new shiny object to distract her, the "THIS is what I've always wanted to do!" profession. And if you buy into the philosophy, who could resist being told that after listening to 2-4 hrs per week of lectures on the included (!) ipod, a couple of online exams, and poof you're a "certified" X? Mind you, the "certification" is from an organization that is run by the founder of the course itself. There is no accreditation.

Today, I sent her some links (as she asked me), mostly type stuff. Some of it is quite biting, but it is not coming out of my mouth so maybe it'd have greater effect.

I feel bad...she is clearly searching for her calling. If it were $495, I'd say WTF and go for it. 5K? Impossible.
posted by cortex (staff) at 1:25 PM on March 10, 2011

You have my sympathies. I had an ex who bought into the get rich quick job scam things because well, he wanted to BELIEVE that a miracle was possible and that he wouldn't have to do hard work for little pay. It sounds like she wants to do the same thing.

I'm not even sure "schooling" would give her what she wants, really. Does she want to take business courses? Learn about entrepreneurship? Or just to blow a lot of money and get excited about things that never happen? I think she's lucky to have you be willing to waste money on that, it would have made me nuts.

I have seen a good chunk of semi-woo (?) sites on the Internet that talk about how to create your own flexible self-employed jobs. If she MUST blow money on something, at least they'd be cheaper and less scammy than anywhere that asks for commissions and five grand. This guy has some free booklets online that you can take a look at for figuring out your passion + making it practical, for example.
posted by jenfullmoon at 1:37 PM on March 10, 2011

If she wants to experience many different kinds of work without working too hard, she could consciously set out to do a variety of things: substitute teach for one year, work in different kinds of sales jobs, sign up at a temp agency, try to start a few home businesses, volunteer at different kinds of nonprofits. All interesting, worthwhile experiences, and very low pressure if food and rent aren't on the line when it doesn't work out.

If she wants to just learn things, help her enroll in continuing education classes or start a book club or something. I hope to keep learning things my entire life, one way or another. It's a great goal.

A bad goal is "find impossible dream job." Because it's impossible. Easy, well paying jobs that don't require much in the way of credentials and aren't illegal simply don't exist.

I'd be worried, too, that there might be some kind of unconscious relationship dynamic that is pressuring her to find this impossible job. Some sort of friction between the two of you, perhaps, because she doesn't have to work and you do. Or dissatisfaction on her part at being financially dependent on you, coupled with a feeling that she has to stay at home to be a good wife/mother.

If so, addressing this one scam would be a classic example of treating the symptom rather than the disease.
posted by jsturgill at 1:46 PM on March 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

Actually, the closer I look at the details, the more I think the OP's scam program and the one I talked my friend out of are one and the same. The program certainly has some powerful marketing! So I'll add a couple more points about how the conversation with my friend went:

9) When Friend started to come around, Friend remarked on how good the program sounded and how the marketing pulls you in. I acknowledged that—"Who wouldn't want [great things the program promises]? The program can sound good and even be enjoyable for students while the details are still problematic."

10) I see you already did the same thing I did, looking at job postings and pointing out that they require more stringent credentials. My friend did not raise the idea of hanging out an independent shingle, but I anticipated it by talking about my ethical reservations: "[Job title] was originally created as a position to work in concert with [highly trained professionals]. By hanging out your own shingle without any training in [much larger professional field that requires a lot of training], you could get into a situation where you don't know enough about a client's ________ problems, and you could give them harmful advice, and they would put too much trust in it because your business card says [job title]." I also pointed out that since [job field] is unregulated, instead of sending the School of Woo $5000, completing their course, and handing out their personalized business cards (included in tuition!), one could JUST AS EASILY skip the course, save $5000, maybe read some library books (or not), and print one's own business cards calling oneself a [job title]—and that was precisely why I had ethical reservations about the program. I don't know whether the ethical arguments were persuasive to Friend.

Given your wife's interest in making easy money, you might better attack the independent-practitioner angle with a little market research, but I don't know how to prove "you're not going to get enough clients paying you $200/hr to make it worthwhile." (Does the $200/hour figure get quoted by anyone other than the dubious program's website and by its "graduates"? I mean, it's not unusual to see massage therapists from a variety of programs charging $60/hr, so we know that's the market rate for massage therapy, but if the only [job titles] asking $200/hr are all graduates of the dubious program that tells them they can make up to $200/hr, then I'd smell a rat.) You might point out that professionals with many more years of training and higher credentials in similar fields get paid a lot less per hour even though their credentials allow them to bill insurance and therefore bring in a much bigger pool of clients.
posted by Orinda at 2:07 PM on March 10, 2011

Um.. here is what I would tell your wife. The truth is, if your ideal job is to be self-employed and work from home and make good money, YOU HAVE TO HAVE SKILLS, and experience. You have to put in the work to learn something and learn how to be good enough at this kind of work to be worth the money to people who want to hire you.

No iPod course is going to give you this. Come on. If the iPod course material is so valuable, just torrent it somewhere for free. What? No one's pirating it? Because no one bothers to listen to the material because the material isn't teaching anything useful. The scammers need to charge you $5K because if they charged what it was worth ($20? plus iPod value?), you'd know it was a scam.

Also, they're sending you the courses on an iPod to distract you from the fact that it's a scam. There is no earthly reason to distribute materials that way other than, they're messing with you, so that you don't feel so bad about throwing away $5K - at least you got a lousy iPod out of it. If they were legit, they'd sell directly through iTunes. In fact, you can go to iTunes and purchase legitimate educational materials to learn real skills, or even download course materials from elite colleges and universities like MIT and UC Berkeley.. for free!

I mean, for a month, you could subscribe to a site like for $25, download trial versions (free! for 30 days!) of Photoshop and Dreamweaver, and work really hard, and get yourself on the way to starting a design career.

There's not a shortcut here. This is why I like having a 9-5 office job. I am not that skilled or driven right now that I could do the work to build my own business and work from home.
posted by citron at 6:29 PM on March 10, 2011 [2 favorites]

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