Fake School in Fort Lauderdale Shut Down by State

On September 19, the Federal Trade Commission announced the takedown of a sham school operating out of Fort Lauderdale. Jefferson High School LLC shared its name with a brick-and-mortar institution in Tampa. Although the similarity made it sound legitimate, the State Attorney's Office says Jefferson was anything but: Getting a diploma or transcript simply required taking a rigged test and completing what's nominally referred to as an essay.

Florida is rife with these so-called diploma mills. In 2010, a background screening firm in the U.K. said the state had the fourth-highest number of them in the nation, 57. An article in the South Florida Business Journal that year claimed the industry was worth "more than $100 million."

The FTC found that Jefferson High School LLC, formerly known as Diversified Educational Resources LLC, raked in more than $11 million in five years. For about $200, anyone could purchase a transcript indicating proficiency in subjects such as "Russian II" and "Home Economics." All it took was a 100-question test on which applicants were allowed to guess four times for each multiple-choice question, which guaranteed a passing grade.

"If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is," says Cheryl Etters, a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Education (DOE). "If someone can get a degree for $300, that sounds a lot easier than four years of school."

The defendants who were running the school, Maria Garcia and Alexander Wolfram, allegedly had a couple of mechanisms in place to cast away any doubts. Students could purchase a "verification" service in which a potential college or employer would get a phone call from Garcia, the school's "principal." They also invented an accrediting agency to dispel doubts from consumers about Jefferson, according to an FTC news release.

Accrediting agency shams are a problem nationwide. Although only a few agencies are deemed reputable by the DOE, anyone can claim to be an accrediting institution. Diploma-mill operators simply need a sham company to vouch for them, and they can lure naive consumers.

The Better Business Bureau has received 79 complaints about Continental Academy, which is operated out of Miami Lakes. It's accredited by the National Association for the Legal Support of Alternative Schools, which isn't recognized by the DOE. Another program, Smith Christian University in Tamarac, is accredited by Transworld Accrediting Commission International, likewise unrecognized. The application for its various PhD programs requires neither an essay nor transcripts.

"You can't assume that because a school is accredited, it's legitimate," Etters says. "If you're unsure about a school's credentials, call a local college or university and ask if they accept a diploma from there."

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Allie Conti was a fellow at Miami New Times and a staff writer for New Times Broward-Palm Beach, where her writing won awards from the Florida Press Club and the Society of Professional Journalists. She's now the senior staff writer at Vice and a contributor to the New York Times, New York Magazine, and the Atlantic.