The Internet offers new ways for educational scams and diploma mills to reach out to people who are looking for genuine education. It is not always easy to identify phony operations from a casual look. A website can include elaborate efforts to deceive, even to the extent of using pictures of ivy-covered buildings when the entire operation consists of a post office box. If a school promises a degree for little or no work, it's probably not legitimate.
An online institution should provide a mailing address. This allows you to check with the higher education consumer protection authority in its home state to see whether it is operating legally under state law. Accreditation from a recognized accrediting agency is another sign that an online program is legitimate.
Online education programs may be subject to state consumer protection, but the ability of states to protect you through regulation is more limited than with classroom instruction. It is easy for operators that do not offer legitimate programs to set up a website and collect money without any external oversight. Sites may operate offshore and be out of reach of all U.S. authorities.
For more information on diploma mills and legitimate online learning, see What is a diploma mill?.