College students urged to be on lookout for financial aid scams
The Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency (PHEAA) is urging college students to be wary of student aid scams that could cost them money while exposing them to identity theft.
“Millions of college students, many of whom are likely to be away from home for the first time, are being targeted by a variety of innocent-sounding scams,” said state Rep. Mike Peifer, PHEAA board chairman. “College students are a prime target since they tend to be less financially experienced and are facing common challenges that can be exploited by scammers.”
The most effective way to avoid scams is to be vigilant when engaging in financial transactions or when asked to provide personal information. Common scams include:
• Tuition scams — These involve someone claiming to work with your school’s administrative office. They call to warn that your tuition is late and you risk being dropped from class unless you pay immediately.
Protect yourself: If you are contacted about anything involving money, end the call immediately and contact the office that was mentioned to you in order to check the status of whatever problem was alleged.
• Online book deals — Scammers know that textbooks are a significant expense for college students. To take advantage of this, they set up a fake website that offers great deals on books that will never be delivered.
Protect yourself: Never purchase anything online without reviewing merchant reviews and validating the site’s legitimacy. This can be done by checking with the Better Business Bureau and looking to see if it has a physical address and phone number.
• Credit cards — While not necessarily a scam, aggressively solicited credit cards tend to be loaded with bad terms, expensive fees and high interest rates. Even worse, some of these solicitations could be nothing more than cleverly disguised identity theft.
Protect yourself: If you must have a credit card, don’t respond to the ones that solicit you most aggressively. Instead, search for the offering with the best terms and the most borrower protections.
• Affordable student apartments — In this scam, someone offers an incredible apartment at a great price that they don’t actually own. They will then collect the rent and/or security deposit before disappearing.
Protect yourself: Never agree to rent an apartment without first seeing it in person, both inside and out, and meeting with the landlord. Additionally, don’t pay until you are able to stand in your new apartment with the key in your hand.
• Unnecessary fees — Beware of anyone charging a fee in exchange for completing a FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid), a scholarship, debt counseling or almost anything else. In most cases, it is either a scam or you are being charged for something that you can do for free.
Protect yourself: Whatever the situation, the higher the fee, the more suspicious you should be. When it comes to financial aid scams, the Federal Trade Commission offers these red flags to watch for:
“The scholarship is guaranteed or your money back.”
“You can’t get this information anywhere else.”
“I just need your credit card or bank account number to hold this scholarship.”
“We’ll do all the work. You just pay a processing fee.”
“The scholarship will cost some money.”
“You’ve been selected” by a “national foundation” to receive a scholarship or “you’re a finalist” in a contest you never entered.
“With many students feeling overwhelmed as they adjust to college life, it is no wonder that criminals try to take advantage of them with costly scams and worthless services,” said state Sen. Wayne D. Fontana, PHEAA board vice chairman. “But help is available. Students just need to take the time to become more knowledgeable, which is the first step toward protecting themselves from becoming a victim.”
While scams have become increasingly sophisticated, most can be avoided by remembering three simple rules:
• If something seems too good to be true, it probably is.
• Don’t part with personal information unless you’re sure where it’s going.
• The more someone needs money upfront, the more likely you are about to be scammed.
PHEAA also offers YouCanDealWithIt.com, a free online resource that helps students better manage life in college and after graduation, with helpful tips on avoiding scams, managing a budget and repaying student loans.
If you believe that you have been targeted or victimized by a scam, contact the Pennsylvania Department of Banking and Securities, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau or the Federal Trade Commission.
Created in 1963 by the Pennsylvania General Assembly, PHEAA is a national provider of student financial aid services, serving millions of students and thousands of schools through its loan guarantee, loan servicing, financial aid processing, outreach and other student aid programs.
PHEAA’s earnings are used to support its public service mission and to pay its operating costs, including administration of the Pennsylvania State Grant and other state-funded student aid programs. PHEAA conducts its student loan servicing activities nationally as FedLoan Servicing and American Education Services. For more information, visit pheaa.org.