10 Steps to avoid Engineering Scholarship Scams
Student or parents needs to be able to recognize the scholarship fraud profile. Following are top 10 Scholarship Scams.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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.