Top Ten Scams You Need to Know Before You Search for Scholarship Awards
Know the Warning Signs
Think you can’t be had? Guess again. Every year thousands of students get scammed out of millions—one estimate as high as $100 million—chasing that scholarship award. How does it happen? Scholarship scammers operate the same as any run-of-the-mill cons. There are promises of big rewards for minimum investment. Any student or parents needs to be able to recognize the scholarship fraud profile. Know the top ten scams in the scholarship marketplace, how to steer clear of the scammer’s snare, and where to turn to for free, credible help in obtaining scholarship awards and financial aid.
1. The free seminar scam. Overwhelmed by all the information out there? Want to make the best financial aid decisions for you or your child? Often a free financial aid seminar is no more than a “come-on” for insurance sales pitches, matching services or investment products.
Signs that should make the warning bells go off: Are they using the hard sell? Sign-up today or the price shoots up tomorrow? Can only answer certain questions after you pay their fee? Wants your credit card information to “hold” a scholarship for you? Your ears should be ringing by now.
Remember, if you receive help from a consultant, he or she must sign the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). If the seminar sales rep refuses to do so, it is another alarm bell. And never let a company consultant suggest that you adjust your income on the FAFSA in order to receive more aid. It’s unethical (a crime even). And it can backfire, big time.
2. Scholarships for profit. Scholarships are designed for many purposes—recruit talented athletes, assist low income applicants, encourage study in an academic discipline, promote campus diversity, attract the best students—but profit should never be one of them. Scammers that award modest scholarships of $1,000 (or no scholarship at all) can collect many times over that amount in fees by attracting thousands of applicants. You may only be out the 15 bucks or so, but multiple that by 1,000 scholarship hopefuls just like you and you just made for a nice payday for the scholarship scam artist. Being denied such a scholarship does not make you undeserving—but just one more scammed applicant.
3. The advance-fee loan. A low-interest loan with an upfront fee? Don’t think so, and neither should you. Legitimate lenders deduct fees from at the time disbursement checks are issue; they do not charge fees before paying out the loan to a borrower. Be wary of any lender that asks for money upfront—that is a loan that will likely never materialize.
4. Your Financial Aid Office. Huh? Your college Financial Aid Office is a credible and free resource for education funding. But beware; the Education Department recently banned the practice of lenders offering financial incentives to universities that recommend their service as a preferred lender (the university often receiving a “cut” for the loan). The move was prompted by investigations showing that some university officials accepted gifts, payments or stock on favorable terms in exchange for such practices. In other instances, marketing representatives for lenders staffed phones at student aid offices. In an $85 billion student loan industry, you have to ask yourself if your university steered you to the lender with the best rate available, or simply the one lining their pockets. Ouch.
5. The guaranteed matching service. If Match.com can’t guarantee you Prince Charming and firmer abs, scholarship matching services cannot guarantee you money in the bank. Matching services that promise guaranteed matching sources for a processing fee of $49.95 (and much higher) will at best provide you with information available for free on the web. Take note that these services often inflate their database when an individual sponsor offers hundreds of scholarships.
The Better Business Bureau (BBB) reports that many of the sources provided by scholarship matching services are inaccurate and “few, if any at all, receive the actual funds”. The BBB adds that information provided is often out of date, providing sources for deadlines that have long passed. And never mind that money-back guarantee—it comes with more hoops to jump through than any dog-and-pony show you could ever imagine.
6. Linked products. Don’t let any sales person ever convince you that a financial product, such as student life insurance, or an annuity, must be purchased to qualify for federal student financial aid. It just isn’t so. And it is a sure fire scam.
7. The telemarketer. Telemarketing was once the biggest bugaboos of scholarship fraud when the FTC first addressed scholarship scams in the 90s. Attention more recently has shifted to bogus financial aid and scholarship seminars, and deceptive practices among consultants. That does not mean that telemarketing scams still do not surface. The U.S. Department of Education warned consumers recently about telemarketing scammers posing as U.S. Department of Education (ED) officers offering grants to students for a $249 processing fee (by requesting a bank or credit card number). Contact the DOE’s Office of Inspector General at 1-800-MIS-USED (1-800-647-8733) or email@example.com to learn more.
8. Guaranteed financial aid consultants. What can you expect for your fee from a financial aid consultant? Help completing the FAFSA, estimating your expected family contribution (EFC), and advising you or child on types of aid. Information and assistance that is readily available and free from a financial aid office at any university, your local library, on the web, or from a high school guidance counselor. So what is free, free, free information worth to you? Plenty, if you pay fees to a financial aid consultant to get it.
Some may want the handholding of a consultant regardless. Then be aware of deceptive claims that should send you looking for help from other sources. A financial aid consultant may guarantee a minimum $2,500 in aid or promise to refund your money. That’s nice, but misleading. Yes, you will no doubt receive that $2,500 student loan, but then so will every applicant who completes the FAFSA (free and on the web at www.fafsa.ed.gov). A federal entitlement available simply by completing the FAFSA should not be misrepresented or misconstrued as aid a consulting company can uniquely guarantee you as an enticement.
Likewise, if a consulting service guarantees you will receive every last penny to ship your child off to school (or your money back), you should not be fooled. You guessed it, another federal entitlement that is a byproduct of completing the FAFSA. That and a decent credit rating will earn you a PLUS loan for 100 percent of the total cost of attendance for you or your child. It is just good sense to steer clear of any company that entices clientele with benefits that are freely available to all students completing the FAFSA (whether they pay pricey consulting fees or not) as a federal entitlement.
Remember, if a consulting agency is completing a FAFSA (or any other form) on your behalf, review, sign it, and mail it yourself. You should maintain copies of the completed FAFSA and expect a refund if it is incorrect. And always agree to a flat fee for financial aid consulting services, never a percentage of aid received. Qualifications to consider when screening potential financial aid consultants include whether the consultant has experience at a financial aid office and is a Certified Public Accountant. Never be hesitant to ask for references.
9. The sweepstakes scholarship. Lucky you! You have just been selected as a finalist to win a scholarship in a sweepstakes that you never entered. (And you thought you never won anything.) The only obstacle standing between you and collecting your winnings is paying the redemption fee. Be wary of contests, websites and scholarships that collect personal data, payout a single dollar-amount (play the lottery today?) and repay the kindness with a barrage of advertisements. Which brings us to our next popular scam tactic.
10. The redemption fee. Common catchphrases by the scammer are disbursement fee, redemption fee, or processing fee. Notice the common denominator here? Legitimate scholarships do not ask a student to pay for an award. Be wary of any money awarded to you out of the blue that comes with strings, especially those with strings attached to your pocketbook.
How Not to Fall Prey to Scholarship Fraud Come-Ons
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) wants you to be alert to scholarship scammers. Duping students out of fees for scholarship money is BIG BUSINESS. The FTC launched a college scholarship fraud awareness program in 1996 called “Project Scholarscam” to alert the consumer of the prevalence of such practices. Later, the Scholarship Fraud Prevention Act of 2000 passed acting on an escalating chorus of complaints about the industry. The FTC underscores the following come-ons as “tell tale lines” for potential fraud victims:
"The scholarship is guaranteed or your money back." (Just try and get it back.)
"You can't get this information anywhere else." (Wanna bet? Try all over the web, your financial aid administrator, local library, or school counselor.)
"I just need your credit card or bank account number to hold this scholarship." (Oh, please! They may claim sensitive credit card or account information is necessary to “verify your identity” or “eligibility”—but it is nothing more than identity theft.)
"We'll do all the work." (Legitimate scholarships require work filling out applications, writing essays, and getting winning letters of recommendation. Who can really do any of that for you? And you still have to fill out the same information for a consultant or fee-based service that you would on the FAFSA, where else are they going to get the information?)
"The scholarship will cost some money." (Sometimes you have to spend money to make money. And sometimes you have to spend money to find out that you have been scammed. Scholarships that charge a fee are the latter.)
"You've been selected by a 'national foundation' to receive a scholarship" or "You're a finalist" in a contest you never entered. (Ignore bogus claims of scholarship awards that you can redeem for a fee. Especially if you never applied to that scholarship or have no recollection of entering a scholarship sweepstakes.”
Typical claims outlined by the Scholarship Fraud Prevention Act 2000: First Annual Report to Congress are discussed below. These tactics have sucked thousands of consumers over the years into paying fees enticed by fraudulent claims and deceptive advertising. Don’t be one of them.
Unclaimed money: Many fraudulent services will entice students with the bald-faced lie that millions of dollars in scholarship money goes unclaimed each year. One basis for that specious claim—employer tuition assistance programs only available to employees of the corporate sponsor that go unused. So, unless you already work for Boeing, Hewlett Packard, or whomever… forget about it.
High success rates: A consultant or matching service offering huge success rates (say 90 percent or so) is a scammer. Use common sense on this one.
Bogus guarantees: Read the fine print and you will find that your “money back guarantee” is riddled with restrictions, and undisclosed conditions, that render it meaningless.
Claims of endorsement or affiliation: The scammer may claim to be endorsed by a state or federal agency, or the Better Business Bureau, agencies that do not endorse private companies. Scholarship scammers often use post office boxes with a Washington, D.C. return address to appear more legitimate, and try to impress by creating names that include buzzwords, such as “National”, “Federal”, “Foundation” or “Administration”
Prevent Scholarship Fraud by Reporting Scammers Today
Consumers who think they may be victim of scholarship fraud should report the activity to the Department of Education’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).
The OIG “conducts audits, investigations, and inspections of education programs and operations”, and can be contacted for fraud abuse using its hotline at 1-800-MIS-USED (1-800-647-8733) or firstname.lastname@example.org to make a confidential report.
The FTC “works for the consumer to prevent fraudulent, deceptive and unfair business practices in the marketplace and to provide information to help consumers spot, stop, and avoid them.” Consumers can file a complaint using the FTC hotline at 1-877-FTC-HELP (1-877-382-4357) or teletype for the hearing impaired at 1-866-653-4261); file an online complaint at www.ftc.gov
Contact your bank immediately if you provide credit card or bank account information to a suspected scammer. Fraud can and should be reported to your local law enforcement agency and your State Attorney General’s Office. Complaints of deceptive practices may be made to the Better Business Bureau by visiting www.bbb.com and the nonprofit National Fraud Information Center (operated by the National Consumers League) at 1-800-876-7060 or www.fraud.org.