BBB: Beware scholarship scams when searching for financial aid
As the June 30, federal FAFSA deadline approaches, many students are searching and applying for grants and scholarships to fund their college education.
With an average cost of approximately $28,000 at four-year institutions, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, paying for a college degree continues to be a challenging obstacle to overcome for prospective students. A challenge that is made more difficult by the presence of scammers looking to take advantage of students and parents searching for financial aid opportunities.
Better Business Bureau receives numerous reports of scholarship scams every year. One victim reported to BBB Scam Tracker that “the scholarship form requested a lot of personal information, which seemed standard for scholarship applications. After submitting my application, I heard nothing back and decided to research the company on their website and Facebook. I found that there were multiple complaints regarding the scholarship dating back to the 2016 competition and each complaint, no matter the year, received the same response – that there was a large and unexpected number of applications, and they did not have time to review and announce the winners, but they would do it soon. I do not believe that they have given out a single scholarship since 2016, yet they continue to post the application each year.”
Due to the sensitive personal and financial information provided for scholarship and grant applications, it is important to be cautious when choosing one to apply for. Of the 2.46 million first-time, full-time students enrolled in postsecondary institutions during the 2018-2019 school year, more than 83 percent were awarded financial aid through federal grants, state/local grants, institutional grants or student loans.
To protect students and parents searching for financial aid opportunities from falling victim to scholarship scams, Better Business Bureau recommends following these guidelines:
• Beware unsolicited offers. It is rare to be awarded a scholarship or grant that was never applied for. If contacted by an organization offering financial assistance, be sure to ask how the organization got your name and verify their claim with the source. Never pay to apply for a scholarship. Some companies may claim that they can make you eligible to get financial aid for a processing fee. What they are really doing is filling out a free application on your behalf and will often falsify your information to ensure you receive funds. Falsifying personal information on certain applications, such as the FAFSA, is illegal and can carry fines up to $20,000.
• Ask questions. Ask as many questions about a scholarship or grant as you can to help determine its legitimacy. If a company is reluctant to answer or provides vague responses, that is a sign it may be a scam. This is especially important if using a third-party service to locate and apply for scholarships. Be sure to ask pointed questions, such as how much they have awarded in previous years to what type of applicant.
• Take your time. Spend the time to research an offered scholarship or grant to the fullest extent possible. Use the resources offered at your college or university, such as guidance counselors or financial aid offices, to determine if it is a right fit for you or if they recognize the company offering financial assistance.
• Beware aggressive tactics. No matter the scam, one of the most common tactics scammers use is to pressure victims to making an immediate decision. They may claim that the offer is only available for a limited time and to “buy now or miss this opportunity.” For scholarship scams, companies may offer false “guarantees” that you will get aid as long as you pay a service fee.
• Be skeptical of glowing success stories. While testimonials are often used by legitimate companies and businesses to demonstrate their successes, they may also be fabricated by scammers. Instead of making a decision to use a company based off of testimonials, ask if they have helped anyone in your community in the past year.
• Apply for grants and scholarships yourself. Filling out and submitting applications yourself is one of the best ways to ensure that the information provided is accurate, complete and controlled. Never pay anyone to fill out or process your FAFSA, it is most likely a scam. Students and parents and submit a FAFSA application online at StudentAid.gov.
For more information about how to avoid scholarship and financial aid scams, visit FTC.gov.
For a list of financial aid service companies the U.S. Department of Education works with, visit StudentAid.gov.