How to recognize and avoid college scholarship scams

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(STATEPOINT) Average college costs have doubled in the last two decades, and this financial pressure along with new technologies makes today’s students particularly vulnerable to financial aid and scholarship scams.

“Scammers know to take advantage of those who are stressed,” says Robert C. Ballard, president and CEO of Scholarship America, the nation’s largest nonprofit scholarship and education support organization. “Fortunately, there are some ways you can avoid getting duped.”

To help you spot scams, Scholarship America offers the following insights.

Fees and other red flags

Scholarship programs charging a fee to apply often look legitimate. But look at the bigger picture: if the provider is awarding $500 in scholarships and collecting fees from thousands of applicants, it’s not funding education so much as making money. Your chances of earning a scholarship are slight if not impossible — sham providers often collect fees and disappear.

Some providers claim to have a no-strings-attached grant or an incredibly low-interest loan to offer, as long as you pay a tax or “redemption” fee in advance. Others offer to match you with guaranteed scholarships — if you pay for a premium search service. Keep in mind, there’s no such thing as a “guaranteed scholarship.”

Free, comprehensive scholarship searching and matching services like Fastweb and Cappex will connect you to legitimate, competitive scholarships that don’t charge application fees.

Too good to be true

Be wary of the “too-good-to-be-true” scam model: an official-sounding organization tells you about an incredible opportunity, offers you a coveted spot at a scholarship seminar, or just sends you a check with a note of congratulations, using messaging designed to get your adrenaline pumping and make you act fast.

Remember, scholarship providers aren’t in the practice of sending funds out randomly; it’s likely the check will bounce, or you’ll be asked to send money back for “processing” or an “accidental” overpayment. Your safest bet? Tearing up the check and, if you have time, filing a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission.

Often unexpected “opportunities” are attempts to get you to divulge personal information. Even clicking on links can expose your data to scammers.

Be cautious: Google the name of the scholarship or organization. Scams have often been flagged by the FTC or Better Business Bureau.

Social scammers

A new scam making the rounds starts with a random friend request on Facebook, Instagram or Snapchat. Accept, and your new friend will start messaging you about a foolproof way to make money for college: they work for a scholarship provider and have found a loophole. They just need to enter you as a winner and you can split the money.

If this was real, it’d be incredibly unethical. However, in the midst of stress, you may be tempted — and that could cost more than money. While you may be asked to send cash as an advance, most such scammers are phishing. Give them enough info, and you’ll be worrying about getting your identity back.

For more scholarship tools, resources and opportunities, including the annual Scholarship America Dream Award, please visit scholarshipamerica.org.

“Scholarship scams seem to work just enough for people to keep trying it,” says Ballard. “However, two main rules will help you avoid them: never pay to apply and if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”

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