The growing trouble of fake online courses and how to spot them

'Gurus' and coaches must be more honest and transparent in their marketing, says Lewis Hackney, founder of Etch'd.

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Etch’d is a nearly two-year-old creative agency founded by Lewis Hackney that assists small-to-mid-sized entrepreneurs (SMEs) with narrative-driven marketing services.

It was during one such project with a client that Hackney started conducting research into building personal brands for young retirees. Through his research, he discovered a number of crash courses with questionable wording and material.

I was coming across a lot of gurus, teachers and people who were wanting to tell you a lot of things but weren’t really showing you a lot of things,” Hackney explains. 

After the project had wrapped up, Hackney decided that it was important, as a CEO, to start bringing attention to the dangers of crash course schemes.

It is especially significant for people to be aware of fake online gurus now than ever before, he notes.

“With the pandemic, obviously people are staying at home, which increases screen time for a lot more people,” Hackney says.

People all over the world are facing financial troubles due to the pandemic and some may take desperate measures to find quick ways to make money, turning to online gurus promising they can make a lot of money even overnight.

“People see it as an escape or a way to save themselves after losing their jobs,” Hackney notes. “Essentially, these gurus are able to prey on more vulnerable people during this pandemic.”

Online coaching scams have already affected the finances and livelihoods of several people in the UK and at least one had ended in tragedy.

In October 2019, former soldier Danny Butcher took his own life after losing £13,000 to Property Investors (aka Samuel365) with the promises of making significant money through property investments.

Despite the controversy surrounding his death, Property Investors denied any wrongdoing on its part and continue to keep its site open for potential new members.

It can be somewhat tricky to decipher what exactly differentiates fake online coaches from legitimate educational courses, but Hackney offers some clues that could point toward a scam.

One thing to keep in mind is that the majority of educational material on subjects like how to invest in real estate or how to create your own successful business are all available for free on sites like Youtube. It is recommended to use these free sources before ever considering to pay for a crash course.

It is common for scammers to first appeal to users by presenting them with a free seminar or webinar to attend.

“For two to three hours they’ll talk, they’ll sell, they’ll pitch, they’ll go around in circles, they’ll never actually provide any information on what the seminar or webinar was about,” Hackney says. “And, at the end of that, you’re tired after watching two to three hours of them talk and talk about how successful they’ve been.

“They will then will move to add pressure and say ‘this would normally cost x’, which is usually a rather large, inflated number, and then they will say ‘but today, in the next two hours, you will be able to get it for an absolute fraction of that price’, which is still a rather relatively large amount.”

The inflated prices that the person hosting the seminar/webinar pitches to users could be anywhere from £200 to £1,000.

That being said, it isn’t entirely uncommon for legitimate educational sites to ask an individual to pay for a course before being able to access it fully.

However, fake online coaches will often continue to ask for more money after the initial payment for the course and may say it is to access even more exclusive content.

“I think they’re using it more in a way to try and sell to as many people as possible and make as much money as possible,” Hackney says.

Additionally, they may allude to users that their content is one price but it is actually more expensive than they claimed. They may also be vague in what exactly you’re paying for, which is another red flag.

On its website homepage, Samuel365 claims that, in order to access its ‘one-on-one support’ and ‘premium training,’ an individual only has to pay £1 for a trial subscription.

However, on the ‘Crash Course terms’ page, while the booking fee to apply for a Crash Course is £1, the actual event is ‘over £100 per person, and although we are happy to offer this for free, we do charge £100 for no-shows or late cancellations, as failure to show up results in others missing out’.

“Always take the time to do research and actually look for reviews,” explains Hackney. 

It is essential to look for reviews through sites not affiliated with the company such as Glassdoor, Trustpilot, and LinkedIn. Never rely solely on the reviews shown on the potential schemer’s website as they may not be as truthful or transparent as one would expect.

There is currently very little regulation when it comes to false advertising in the UK as it can be difficult to prosecute a company of wrongdoings when they had provided what was initially asked for.

Hackney calls for companies to start self-regulating and providing “hard facts” that “this is hard work and it doesn’t happen overnight.”

Hackney created a Youtube channel a few months ago with the hopes of showing viewers exactly what it takes to be an entrepreneur and how difficult it can be to keep up a successful and independent business.

“Our main focus is very much showing how much work we’re doing, how hard it is,” Hackney said. “It costs to get where you’re going to go, and I’m very much trying to show that with the new vlogs.


“The real thing is educating people and educating themselves to find showers, not tellers; always take the time to do the research.”

  • Etch’d is a boutique creative agency providing bespoke marketing services to scale-ups across the investment, financial services and property development sectors.

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