Avoiding Online Course Scams

By Jeff Cobb.  Last Updated on July 10, 2022

Hand reaching out of laptop for money

Fake check scams have existed for decades, and most people are savvy enough to spot them. If you’re selling an item for $10 and the buyer gives you a check for $100 and asks for $50 back, you’d probably guess it was a con and the check would bounce, leaving you out your item and the $50 you gave to the buyer. But would you spot the same scam if it was sold to you as a marketing plan for your online course?

That’s what’s happening to a growing number of edupreneurs. They are approached by marketing companies to promote their online courses in return for a percentage of the profits. Sounds reasonable, right? The edupreneurs agree to the terms, the promotions begin, and new learners enroll in their courses. After the return period has closed, the edupreneurs pay the marketing company their share of the profits.

So where’s the scam?

Once the marketing company has been paid and vanished, the edupreneurs are hit with chargebacks from the payment companies. Their checks bounced, because the payments were made using stolen or fraudulently obtained credit cards. You might offer a 30-day cancelation period for your online course, but credit cards offer users 60 days from the date of the billing statement to dispute charges, or longer if a card is obtained fraudulently. You could think you’re free and clear to pay the “marketer” after a month, only for chargebacks to be issued weeks later.

Edupreneurs who fall for the scam can find themselves thousands of dollars in debt, or even in legal trouble for fraud and money laundering. Unlike with traditional fake check scams, which usually have one check per victim, or “mark,” this kind of online scam can involve dozens or hundreds of transactions, leaving the mark with a huge financial and legal liability at the end.

Now you know how the scam works, how can you be sure if the marketer you’re using for your online course is legit or a scammer?

The easiest way to avoid scams is to avoid outsourcing any of the work involved in marketing your online course. If you’re personally running ads through reputable sites such as Google or Facebook, you know you aren’t being scammed. However the more time you spend marketing your products, the less time you have to spend creating more. Edupreneurs wear many hats, but marketing isn’t a talent everybody has or wants. The good news is there are still ways to outsource your promotional efforts and avoid being scammed.

Do your homework

Any good business does due diligence on its contractors and partners before signing a contract, and you should approach edupreneurship in the same way. Always research companies offering promotional and marketing services before you agree to work with them. Do they have a professional website, business email address, and good reviews from other clients? Can they show you a portfolio of work, and explain how they get their results? No marketer will tell you their best secrets, but be wary of vague answers. It’s your business they’ll be promoting, so you should have input into how they present it to others.

Don’t take the word of anyone who approaches you about marketing your course. Maybe that top-flight New York ad agency did decide to cold email you about working with them, but it’s more than likely a scammer fishing for marks. Don’t follow any links contained within cold-contact emails. If the company is legitimate, you’ll find their website and reviews using search engines. Links in emails can take you to sites that look genuine but aren’t, so always double-check that a company exists and you are talking to a real employee before agreeing to anything.

Be wary of guarantees

If marketing came with guarantees, everyone would do it. The truth is, the best ad campaign in the world can’t guarantee sales. No legitimate marketer can or will offer you a guaranteed number of sales. This is true of selling places on your online courses, ebooks on Amazon, and everything in between. The only way to guarantee sales of anything is to be the one making the purchases, and that means perpetuating some kind of fraud.

Sometimes fraud falls into a gray area of “gaming the system,” such as when author David Vise bought 18,000 copies of his own book in order, it was claimed, to reach the top of the bestseller lists. Other times, however, the fraud involves criminal activities such as theft and money laundering. Either way, treat with suspicion anyone who says they can guarantee you a particular number of sales.

Equally, you should also be cautious when marketers propose payment based on sales figures. While some action-based payments are legitimate, such as cost-per-click or affiliate advertising, most professional marketers will want to be paid whether or not your product sells.

Look for unusual buyer behavior

If you have fallen for a scam, there are ways to spot it while it’s ongoing. The most obvious one is to check for unusual behavior in your buyers. Illegitimate sales will often arrive in batches, from random email addresses, or with fake names. All of these are warning signs that a learner isn’t what they appear to be.

After purchasing your course, fake learners won’t engage with it like a normal learner will. While some people will sign up for online courses then not access them immediately, if you have lots of purchases from users who never log in or start your course, they are probably fake sales. You should also be wary of new members from unusual countries. If most of your learners are based in America and you suddenly get a lot of sales from Armenia, they could be part of a scam.

Other common online course scams

The fake check scam isn’t the only one affecting edupreneurs. Many online courses are scraped and resold by unscrupulous buyers. Startup founder Ryan Kulp fell victim to one, and detailed how he discovered his course content had been stolen, and how he beat the scammer, on his blog.

Content scrapers can be hard to spot because they’re usually single actors who act just like a real learner. They sign up for your course and access the lessons, but their goal isn’t to learn, but to steal. They’ll download your content, repackage it, and upload it on their own site or another course hosting platform, where other people will pay the scammer for your hard work. If the scammer is particularly bold, they’ll also request a refund from you the moment they’ve downloaded your course.

These scams can be hard to stop, even when you discover the theft, and almost impossible to prevent beforehand. Learners like to be able to download content in order to access it through different devices when they’re on the go, so disabling that function will annoy more real customers than it will prevent fake ones.

Watermarking your videos and downloadables can help if your content is stolen. By stating clearly where your content is legitimately available, you can alert users who have purchased the content from the scammer that they bought a stolen copy.  Receiving notifications from learners who have been caught out by a scammer is how many edupreneurs first learn their content has been stolen.

For this reason, some scammers don’t want to redistribute content if it has your information in it, so the watermark can act as a deterrent.

The other most common way you’ll find out if your content has been scraped is if you get an online alert. Google Alerts allow you to monitor the internet and get notifications if your trigger words or phrases are found online. Setting up Google Alerts for your name and your products is good business practice anyway, but particularly helpful if you want to be notified as soon as possible if someone has stolen your content. Sometimes you’ll also get alerts to reviews and referrals to your course, which can provide a nice boost to your day when you realize people are talking about you!

If you host your course on a WordPress website (for example, using a plugin like LearnDash), or have a link to your site in your course description, you can also get notified of stolen content using pingbacks. These are internet messages that let you know if your site has been linked to by any other website. Often content scrapers are lazy, and will copy and paste all the information from your course and description straight into the reseller site. Including a URL to a site where you can view pingbacks can alert you to the stolen content.

Edupreneurs who don’t have a WordPress site, or don’t have pingbacks enabled, can use a backlink checker online or through Google Analytics (if it has been activated) to see incoming links on their websites.

If you do find your content has been stolen, you have some recourse to have it taken down. If the content is hosted by a major online course seller, report it and it will usually be taken down. Unfortunately, you won’t see any of the profits from sales the scammer has already made, but you will prevent them from making more.

When a scammer uploads your course to their own site, it can be harder to have it removed. Start with a Whois lookup to find details about the owner and host of the site. You can report stolen content to the host, who might take the whole site offline. If they won’t cooperate, as a last resort file a DMCA report with Google. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act is a piece of U.S. legislation that protects intellectual rights by forcing American sites to remove infringing content. While international sites don’t have to comply, Google does. This means the stolen content will still be online, but it will be hidden in search engine results, making it much harder for scammers to profit from the theft.

The last common scam many edupreneurs fall for is a vanity scam, usually in the form of a cold email saying you’ve won a prize or been selected for special treatment. These scams work because they prey on the mark’s desire for recognition or validation. However, remember it’s unlikely you’ve won any competition you didn’t enter and there’s little difference between an email saying you’ve been voted Best Edupreneur 2019 and an email saying you’ve won the Irish lottery.

So what’s in it for the scammer?

These scams are designed to get your money, either directly or through you handing over enough personal information to open yourself up to identity fraud. At the simplest level, a scammer could say you’ve won a prize or a place in a publication, but you have to pay to claim. These scams are very common, but generally easy to spot.

More complex scams could say they need to verify your identity in order to present you with an award. Some people fall victim because the scammers don’t ask for money at any point. What they’re interested in is your personal information. Make sure whenever you’re providing sensitive information to anyone online you’re certain of the organization you’re dealing with, and the reason why they need it. It’s rare that a cold contact will be genuine, so always tread carefully.

Online scams are a fact of life, but some edupreneurs fall prey to scammers because they reinvent old scams and present them in seemingly legitimate ways. However with due diligence, you can avoid becoming a victim to the latest online scam.

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