College is expensive enough without getting ripped off by a scammer pitching bogus scholarship offers and financial aid assistance. Finaid.org estimates that Americans are cheated out of roughly $100 million every year by scammers.
Abigail Seldin, vice-president of innovation for ECMC and co-founder of College Abacus, says there are five catch phrases that families should be listening for this college application season.
"Don't worry, we'll do all the work."
True, there is lot of paperwork involved in the application process and paying someone to fill out your Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form might sound good. But Seldin says it could end up creating an even bigger headache for you down the road.
The U.S. Department of Education does not endorse services that charge for help with the FAFSA and instead urges students seeking assistance to consult FAFSA's online help desk at fafsa.gov, the Federal Student Aid Information Center, or the financial aid offices at the colleges themselves.
Some students may still decide to use fee-based services, but those who do run the risk of being hit with hidden fees. Remember, FAFSA stands for 'Free Application for Federal Student Aid"--the operative word in that acronym being “free.”
"Guaranteed or your money back!"
In the competitive world of scholarships, legitimate organizations know better than to go out on a limb with claims like "guaranteed or your money back." Most of these scholarship sites are search engines that link you to scholarship sponsors – not actual scholarship sponsors themselves, who have actual control over who is and who isn't selected.
Seldin says scholarships that claim to have a "money back guarantee" should prompt caution as well, since they typically have attached terms and conditions that make it difficult – if not impossible – to receive a refund.
"Please provide a credit card to confirm eligibility."
Big red flag here. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) warns that scammers have been known to call unsuspecting students out of the blue to offer so-called grants and scholarships, then ask for a credit card or bank account in order to "confirm eligibility" or "hold the scholarship."
Seldin says you can safely assume that anyone asking you to submit unusual personal information upfront is a scammer and the sooner you hang up, the better.
In addition to the obvious risk of monetary theft, disclosing sensitive information to a stranger – whether it's your credit card information, bank account number, or anything else – makes you vulnerable to identity theft, especially when that information is paired with other personal data like your date of birth.
"You're invited to a free seminar!"
There are numerous pitfalls to something like this. Seldin says many of these sessions turn out to be crafty traps for peddling unrelated financial products to unsuspecting families – everything from annuities to life insurance policies.
In other cases, a seminar may present you a chance to secure a scholarship on the spot or pressure you to commit to overpriced private loans as a prerequisite for receiving federal aid. Private loans are never a requirement for federal aid.
"We'll just need your FAFSA ID to get started."
Your FAFSA ID is personal information that shouldn't be shared with outsiders. In the eyes of the U.S. government, your FAFSA ID might as well be your electronic signature.
Anyone who has access to it can also gain access to your most important personal data – everything from your date of birth and Social Security number to your home address and parents' names. In other words, all the ingredients criminals need to steal your identity and open up new lines of credit in your name can be found via your FAFSA ID. If you think your FAFSA ID has been compromised, make sure to change it immediately.
Seldin says it's always better to be safe than sorry. She says no legitimate scholarship will need access to your bank account or Social Security number.