Denise Richardson had three kids, worked the night shift and had little spare time to take classes that would earn her the high school degree she never received as a teenager.
Nearly 1 million Americans try to get their high school equivalency credentials every year, and she wanted to join their ranks, so the Wisconsin mother went online to learn about the process. After clicking her way through a few ads, she found one that looked promising: For around $500, she would get a series of practice tests mailed to her. Then she could take a test online and, if she passed, she’d get that coveted diploma.
A few weeks later, after working through the practice tests and struggling through a five-hour online exam, she was told she had passed. Soon, she had her diploma. Then, last fall, she proudly took the diploma and transcripts to nearby Blackhawk Technical College and enrolled in classes. A few days later, she got a call from an admissions officer with bad news.
"She told me that (my documents) were no good," Richardson said. “I was back to square one, and out money -- a lot of money. … I felt terrible because I didn't finish school, and then here I try to go back and better my education and it gets thrown in my face.”
Richardson is one of 39 million U.S. adults who don't have a high school diploma and are therefore blocked from college and many employment opportunities. There's only one way to "test" out of high school -- through the General Educational Development (GED) program that's operated by the GED Testing Service, a joint venture of the American Council on Education and a private firm named Pearson VUE. And there's currently no way to take the test online: You have to sit, SAT style, in a hard chair in front of a proctor and pass the test's five components.
But as with so many industries, the digital world has added confusion to the process and left the door wide open for scam artists. Imposters abound online, promising simpler ways to get a GED or a high school diploma, the offers sweetened by promises that online tests mean the applicants never need to leave their homes. Those who are duped into doing that are almost always disappointed, as those degrees are not recognized by state education departments or the federal Department of Education. More importantly, colleges and employers don’t accept the degrees.
Victims like Richardson are usually out anywhere from $200 to $1,200 and they face embarrassment when they try to use their diploma. For many, it's also a tough setback on an already tough road.
"I wanted it so bad and I figured … it was something online where I could do it on my own time, and working third shift, I couldn't go to school during the day and come home to the kids at night and help them with school work, so it was a perfect opportunity,” Richardson said. “That's where they got me.”
This week, the American Council on Education is warning consumers about an explosion of fake high school equivalency scams and, with the GED Testing Service, has filed a lawsuit against a string of websites it says offer false hope and false degrees.
"(Victims) are getting something not recognized by employers, not recognized by colleges," warned Randy Trask, president and chief executive officer of GED Testing Services. "They pay their money, they get their credential, they try to get into college or they try to get a job only to find out that it was a fraudulent credential. … It’s not worth the paper it was printed on."
It's unclear how many victims have been taken nationwide, as there's no central clearinghouse for victims. But there are piles of complaints at local Better Business Bureaus and state attorney's general offices across the country. A simple Web search shows just how many questionable high school degree programs compete for victims.
“It’s likely there are thousands of people, if not more, who have been affected by scams like this,” said GED Testing Service spokeswoman Cassandra Brown. The service has recently launched a website to encourage victims to come forward to help determine how extensive the problem is.
The pool of potential targets is particularly vulnerable, said Trask.
"It's quite frankly a target rich environment,” he said. “There are lots of people who know they need (a degree). They have a sense of urgency about how quickly they want to get it, and they're a logical victim. If they see something that requires less work, why would they go through the process if it requires more time and they think they're going to be getting the same thing?"
The lawsuit has already had an impact. Visitors to SenfordHighSchool.com -- one page alleged in the lawsuit to have sold imposter GEDs -- now see a stark warning that the site was disabled by a federal court order on March 9. Anyone who placed an order with the site is instructed to contact a lawyer listed on the page.
The original GED test was first administered in 1942, during World War II, and was designed as a way to get veterans ripped from their childhoods quickly back into the educational system and on a path towards college or a career that required a high school degree. Since 1942, 17 million people have been granted GED credentials.
GED Testing Service has been able to successfully sue rogue online operators who abuse the GED trademark. But the Web is teeming with similar sites that tempt potential GED test-takers with online studies that lead to diplomas rather than the equivalency credentials granted by the GED Testing Service. Such online studies aren't accepted by most colleges either, further confusing the issue and sometimes skirting the edge of the law.
"I think as Americans we should all be incensed that people are taking advantage of adults that are really just trying to get out of the path that they headed down," Trask said. "They want to turn their life around, they want to provide for their families.”
Only state departments of education can give entities the authority to grant high school diplomas. Potential students should check with their state office before enrolling in any program for a high school degree. The national Department of Education website has a handy list of links to state offices.
Richardson’s story has a happy ending. She went to a local GED testing center and shared her story. She got no refund – the website she paid for her fake degree had disappeared – but she eventually sat for the real test, passed it and enrolled in college.
“A lot of people say now I’m too cautious because I don't like to do anything on the computer anymore,” she said. “It feels really good that I’m in college and taking up two degrees. ... I couldn’t be happier.”