While online learning is booming, charlatans and scammers are looking to take advantage. Cowboy coaches are flooding the market making official accreditation or authenticity essential for individual students and businesses. Here are seven online scams to beware
01 Cloak-and-dagger sales presentations
Online learning can be a crook’s cloak, where the course has little educational content and value and is instead a sales presentation full of commercial advertising. Through advertising and regular email communications, the course is a guise to persuade you to buy a sometimes unrelated product or service.
One anonymous respondent to a CPD (continuing professional development) Standards Office survey says: “I paid to attend a training conference that I thought would genuinely give me some training in beauty and aesthetics for my practice. However, it was a sell, sell, sell session for buying botox and chemical peel products.”
Amanda Rosewarne, chief executive of the CPD Standards Office, advises: “To avoid online scams like this, people should look for training courses listed with many learning objectives and seek out independent review sites such as Trustpilot.”
02 Fake qualifications
It is easy to fall foul of scammers who promise professional qualifications. They hook you in by selling a course, but then fail to provide the correct certificate or licence.
Dr Emma Woodward, a New Zealand-based educational psychologist, says: “I’m concerned by the number of online courses offering training in areas that cross over into fields that are highly regulated, such as ‘diploma in child development’ or ‘diploma in cognitive behavioural therapy’.
“These courses allude to having more gravitas than what they offer, which is both unethical and dangerous as the application to real people is a skill that needs more than a few PDFs online.”
03 Promises of employment
“There are several ‘professional coaching organisations’ we have encountered that promise on completion of their, usually very expensive, coaching ‘qualification’ they will forward clients to you,” says Rosewarne at the CPD Standards Office.
“In this case, the course is not the problem, it’s just that the clients, business development opportunities or guaranteed financial guarantees given at the point of sale, do not materialise, leaving people at a loss of how to make a living, or develop a business, from their new skillset.”
Performing due diligence is critical. Robert Clarke, the managing editor of Learning News, says: “In these times of change and uncertainty, unscrupulous providers are on the make. Recognised training and CPD helps buyers avoid the tricksters and scams, and buy with greater confidence.”
04 Non-existent colleges and academies
“The words ‘college’ and ‘academy’ are unprotected when registering an organisation at Companies House,” Rosewarne points out. Therefore, anyone can set up an online learning course linked to a fake education centre. There are two typical online scams. Firstly, the scammers charge for an expensive and prestigious course before liquidating the organisation. Alternatively, buyers are duped into long-term membership commitments that are impossible to cancel and the content is often freely available elsewhere.
“Make sure it is a well-known provider and check it with a phone call,” says Hilarie Owen, chief executive of the Leaders’ Institute. “Don’t part with any money until you have checked.”
05 Rogue conferences
Scamming global conference providers offer fake event agendas by using the names of top academics, business leaders and talking heads to advertise and sell tickets. Supposed keynote speakers will have “cancelled at the last minute” only to be replaced by lower-grade alternatives.
A Trustpilot ConferenceSeries Review provides an example of this dubious practice. “Attended the fifth International CAM Conference in Vancouver in October 2019. Only a few speakers showed up and the rest apparently had their visas rejected or had health issues. Total fabrication.” There were 44 names advertised originally, but only four speakers attended and there was no one from the organisation present. “I wish I had checked before registering,” the reviewer adds.
06 Poor-quality online learning courses
“This online scam involves a concise overview course for a minimal fee, usually £50 or less, which offers what we call ‘skimpy content’,” says Rosewarne. “Buyers will encounter heavy promotion and sophisticated digital marketing tricks for purchasing a further, more expensive, course, which might be £1,000 or more. Sometimes these courses also lack engagement and are ‘chalk-and-talk’ presentations with little practical application.”
Simon de Cintra, director of Act Naturally, agrees. “Professional training providers know that reputation is key to long-term success and actively encourage well-informed purchasing at every stage,” he says, warning that users should always read reviews before buying.
07 Free online learning
Not only are numerous free online learning courses, peddled by charlatans, a waste of time, but the purported expertise they provide is also substandard and therefore potentially harmful. “This learning often focuses on a specific topic, such as beauty aesthetics, child mental health support, or IT engineering technical training,” says Rosewarne. “Most of the time, the authors have had a single fluke success online and are not at all experts in the topic.”
This chimes with Jo Cook, founder and director of Lightbulb Moment. “A lot of people are jumping on the COVID-19 bandwagon, either as a scam or with little expertise in how to provide quality remote courses and live online sessions,” she says. “Make sure to go to a company with years of experience behind them.”
This article was originally published in Raconteur’s Digital Learning report in September 2020