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How to Spot a Fake Diploma
As online colleges proliferate, so do diploma mills. Here are a few tips on detecting phony sheepskins. Plus, some of the best cities for singles.
By Anne Fisher, FORTUNE senior writer

Dear Annie:
About a year ago, I was put in charge of hiring for my small unit of a large retailing company. Roughly one quarter of our job openings at any given time require a college degree, especially our management track positions. Lately, I've been seeing a lot of resumes that list colleges I've never heard of and, when I ask the applicants about these schools, I'm told they got their degrees online. I know there are lots of legitimate online college programs, but I've also heard that many are scams that will send a sheepskin to anyone with a valid Visa card. How do I tell the difference?
-- Skeptical Stan

Dear Stan:
Sometimes, a bogus diploma is easy to spot -- like the one proclaiming an applicant had earned a "batchelor's" degree, say the folks at an employee-screening company called HireRight (http://www.hireright.com). Alas, not all fakes contain spelling errors. Eric Boden, HireRight's president and CEO, says the diploma-mill industry rakes in $200 million a year: "We have a list of hundreds of known diploma mills and we update it constantly. The operators move from state to state and, since there are few, if any, laws against issuing fake diplomas in most states, they're hardly ever prosecuted."

You may be able to determine if a diploma is legitimate, but it'll take a little time and research. The first step to find out if an obscure school actually exists, Boden says, is simply to try calling its office. "If no one answers the phone," he says, "that's a bad sign." Ersatz colleges -- the kind that will send anyone a degree for a fee, without the student's ever being required to crack open a book or take an exam -- often claim to be "accredited," and they are, but only by fly-by-night accrediting agencies that they have created themselves. "Some of these have pretty impressive-sounding names, too," Boden notes. You can discover whether a school's accrediting agency is legitimate by checking with the Council on Higher Education Accreditation (http://www.chea.org).

Still, this can get complicated, because some schools that are perfectly real, and even quite good (if small), have simply not gotten around to getting accredited, often in part because the process is costly. Moreover, you might think that asking your job applicants to supply college transcripts would help you figure out what course work they actually did. But, says Boden, even that is not foolproof. "Sometimes you can tell from a 'transcript' that it's phony. There are alleged transcripts that just don't look right: not enough detail, or too obviously printed from someone's PC," he explains. "However, some diploma mills include pretty authentic-looking transcripts as part of what the 'student' gets for his money."

In the end, Boden says, figuring out whether a candidate really went to college may depend on your own skills as an interviewer. Ask the applicant for details about his studies. When you dig a little, questioning him about what he learned in particular courses, for example, does he appear nervous? Do his answers sound credible? (Even if the candidate went to school many years ago, he should still be able to describe some of what he learned. I graduated from college way back in 1979 and -- just ask my friends -- I can still talk your ear off about my favorite economics courses, not to mention a course on international relations that forever changed my world view.) During the interview, is there a vagueness, a lack of eye contact, a sudden fidgeting? "Go with your intuition and gut instinct," suggests Boden.

Incidentally, you'd be wise to verify all of your applicants' educational credentials, not just the ones from schools you've never heard of. For instance, you've no doubt heard of the University of Maryland -- a real, bona fide, bricks-and-mortar, fully accredited four-year institution of higher learning. Boden tells of one job candidate who blithely put a bachelor's degree from that school on his resumé. But, when a job interviewer did a routine check and found that the university had no record of this person, he admitted that "he attended classes there with his girlfriend for a couple of years," Boden recalls, "but never actually enrolled."

Now, friends, I can't let Valentine's Day go by without passing along a juicy bit of research from the Economic Policy Foundation (http://www.epf.org). The nonprofit think tank has -- believe it or not -- analyzed the workforces in the nation's 20 largest metropolitan areas to find which ones are best for those looking for love, or at least prospective mates. Miami holds the top spot for single women, the EPF report says, with "1.40 single, employed men in the workforce for every single, employed woman." (What does .40 of a man look like, I wonder.) Note to lonely guys: Head to St. Louis, which boasts 1.16 single, employed women per single, employed man. Other promising cities for working women in search of Mr. Right: Phoenix, Tampa-St. Petersburg, San Diego, and Seattle. And, for men who don't want to move to St. Louis, how about Cleveland, Boston, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., or Baltimore? If nothing else, the EPF's findings back up the incessant whining I hear about New York City's dismal dating scene: The Big Apple (FORTUNE's hometown) appears, alas, nowhere on either list.

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Next, see FORTUNE's 100 Best Companies to Work For.

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