Get Wise to These Common (and Costly) Student Aid Scams

Get Wise to These Common (and Costly) Student Aid Scams

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In this new school year, parents of high schoolers face an age-old problem: How to pay for college.

Considering the bulk of available student aid is loans – currently more than $1.3 trillion in sometimes crushing student debt is owed by 44 million U.S. borrowers – many turn a hopeful eye to snagging scholarships and grants that don’t have to be repaid…only to get blindsided.

Each year, some 350,000 students and tab-footing parents lose as much as $100 million to student aid scams that falsely promise scholarships for college-bound seniors or “loan forgiveness” to those already with student debt.

Here’s what to know to avoid getting schooled:

Who offers the scholarship – and why? Legitimate scholarships make no secret of the sponsor, usually with an About Us page and/or information about the scholarship’s history and past winners. Unrecognized companies and non-profits (and their addresses) should be verified checked with an online search; scams may tout government- or official-sounding names with “National,” “Federal,” “Federation,” “Foundation” and “Administration” in titles.

Judging and award criteria should be outlined, along with a privacy policy ensuring that applicants’ information won’t be sold to others. If neither is obvious, assume a scam. Requests for Social Security numbers and other sensitive information of students or parents won’t be requested on legitimate applications, only those of scammers.

Faux application fees. It costs nothing except time and effort to apply for legitimate scholarships; scams require application fees. At $5 to $35, it may seems like small price to nab an alleged endowment, but the money quickly adds up: The typical scholarship-for-profit scheme – disguised in an official-looking website or arriving via U.S. mail or email courtesy of purchased mailing lists – receives up to 10,000 applications. Even if (and it’s a big “if”) awards are offered, they are few and small – maybe “a $1,000 scholarship or two,” reports FinAid, a leading (and free) website to locate scholarships and other college aid.

“Secret” list scams. These fraudsters allege to have the skinny on little-known or untapped opportunities, but it’s a big, fat lie. There are no “secret scholarship lists” and for up to $500, typically required upfront, these services do nothing more than what students should do – search no-cost scholarship-listing websites such as FinAid and FastWeb.

Prize lies. In these scams, students are told they already won a scholarship worth thousands of dollars – but need to pay a “disbursement” or “redemption” fee, or even upfront taxes on that money. These crooks may claim the scholarship is “guaranteed” or promise “your money back.” Or that a credit card is needed to “hold this scholarship” or that your student has been “selected” or is a “finalist” for an award that wasn’t applied for. No matter the language, understand there’s really one word – “scam.”

Also beware of so-called scholarship checks that arrive by mail; the recipient is asked to deposit it and forward a portion to a third-party (not the university). What happens? The deposited check proves to be a fake, The forwarded amount is lost, and money drawn from its deposit must be repaid.

Flimflam form fillers. For fees up to $1,000, these self-described “counselors” claim they’ll handle all the paperwork to help students and parents apply for need-based grants, work-study and other financial aid. But the only application that determines eligibility for such programs is the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) – and note the first word. For those interested in any federal and most school-offered aid, FAFSA applications begin Oct. 1 for students planning to begin college in the summer or fall of 2018. Besides paying unnecessarily “service” fees, FAFSA requires sensitive financial details, another reason for parents to complete it themselves.

Conversely, legitimate admissions consultants work one-on-one with students to provide guidance on other aspects of the admissions process – writing essays, studying for SATs and perhaps helping with other (non-FAFSA) forms. Whereas you have to find them – typically through referrals from the child’s high school or intended college – FAFSA fraudsters are more likely to recruit customers on Facebook or through telemarketing and mailed letter.

Loan lies. Attend those financial aid seminars promoted by the high school and you’ll get usable, accurate info on how to apply for student loans – the primary source of financial aid – through Federal Student Aid, the U.S. Department of Education and other programs offering government-back student loans (the safest and usually least expensive option). Beware of presenters making unexpected and off-site invites, pitching insurance products such as annuities, or angling for personal information including SSNs. Steer clear of any loans that require an advance fee for applying or to “qualify” (sometimes hawked as an “origination” or “guarantee” fee); real student loans deduct any fees from the disbursement check and don’t require upfront costs.

Avoid debt relief crooks that charge upfront fees to negotiate a lower loan rate; that’s illegal and easy enough to do yourself – or with help from a student loan counselor certified by the National Foundation for Credit Counseling. And while there are legitimate government programs that can reduce or “forgive” federal student loans, qualifying criteria is strict, including college graduates having to work in specific occupations. The “secret” programs and strategies offered by loan forgiveness fraudsters are bogus and costly; use Uncle Sam’s free Repayment Estimator to determine monthly payments and possible loan forgiveness options.

For information about other scams, sign up for the Fraud Watch Network. You’ll receive free email alerts with tips and resources to help you spot and avoid identity theft and fraud, and keep tabs of scams and law enforcement alerts in your area at our Scam-Tracking Map.

 Also of Interest

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IRS: Identity Theft on Business Tax Returns Soaring

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While tax-related identity theft against individual taxpayers is on the downswing, fraudsters have increased efforts on another front to obtain illicit refunds: Stealing identities of legitimate American companies to file bogus business tax returns.

In the first five months of this year, the Internal Revenue Service flagged some 10,000 business returns for suspected tax-related identity theft – a 250 percent increase from the 4,000 cases in all of 2016 and 2,757 percent uptick from 350 suspected cases in 2015. The IRS estimates potential losses from business-related ID theft against corporations, partnerships, limited liability companies and other business entities at $137 million so far in 2017, compared with $268 million in 2016 and $122 million in 2015.

Meanwhile, during the same January-through-May period of 2017, the IRS reports that 107,000 individual taxpayers reported being victims of tax-related ID theft. That’s a 47 percent drop compared to the same period in 2016, when 204,000 consumers filed victim reports with the agency (with 376,500 for all of 2016). In the first five months of 2015, the IRS received almost 297,000 reports from individuals, and 698,700 for that entire calendar year.

“Cybercriminals are showing increasing savvy and tax expertise as they use stolen data, sometimes from tax practitioners, to file these business, partnership and trust returns for refunds.” notes the IRS. “Or they post the stolen data for resale on the Dark Net so that other criminals can file fraudulent tax returns.”

Historically, business-related identity theft aimed for refunds for benefits such as fuel tax credits. But scammers are now filing fraudulent corporate returns (Forms 1120 and 1120S) and estate and trust returns (Form 1041) to obtain fraudulent refunds. The IRS says that crooks are also using fraudulent Schedule K-1 filings made by partnerships to file bogus individual returns.

Meanwhile, tax preparers themselves are an increasingly popular target among scammers. During the first five months of 2017, there were 177 reported data breaches at tax preparers’ offices – and the IRS “continues to receive reports of three to five data breaches each week.”

Just weeks ago, the IRS warned about a new scheme – phishing emails being sent to accountants and other tax professionals “seeking extensive amounts of sensitive preparer data” that could enable scammers to steal client data and file fraudulent tax returns. These bogus emails, purportedly from a major tax software education provider in the U.S. (which the IRS did not identify), claims a database problem in requesting tax preparers’ log-in credentials, answers to “secret” security questions, birth dates, Social Security numbers, even the maiden names of their mothers.

IRS Commissioner John Koskinen credits the decline in tax refund fraud against individuals to an information-sharing partnership launched in 2015 by the IRS, state tax officials, and tax industry professionals and organizations, including tax-preparation software companies. In an effort to drive down refund fraud against corporations and partnerships, the IRS and other members of the partnership have urged tax preparers to increase security safeguards – and be suspicious of any potential business clients claiming they do not currently have an Employer Identification Number.

For the 2017 filing season, the tax software industry began sharing “data elements” from tax returns with the IRS and states to help spot suspected identity theft on business returns. Those efforts will be expanded next year; also in 2018, the IRS will be asking tax professionals to gather more information on their business, trust and estate clients – including the name and Social Security number of the company contact authorized to sign the business return and details about the firm’s tax payment history.

Worried that your firm has already been targeted – or victimized? Warning signs of business-related identity theft for filers of business, partnerships, estate and/or trust tax paperwork (and their tax preparers) include:

  • An e-filed return, or filing extension request, being rejected because a return with the Employer Identification Number or Social Security Number has already been filed.
  • Receiving an unexpected receipt of a tax transcript or IRS notice that doesn’t correspond with anything the business submitted.
  • Failure to receive expected and routine correspondence from the IRS, which could indicate that the identity thief has changed the contact address for the business.


For information about other scams, sign up for the Fraud Watch Network. You’ll receive free email alerts with tips and resources to help you spot and avoid identity theft and fraud, and keep tabs of scams and law enforcement alerts in your area at our Scam-Tracking Map.


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What to Know About the Top Summer Scams

What to Know About the Top Summer Scams

As temperatures rise, so do certain scams. Here’s how to avoid getting burned in summer’s most common cons:

Home Repairs
Conning contractors typically come to your home unexpectedly, offering steep discounts on driveway resurfacing, roof work, tree trimming or other “necessary” repairs they happen to see while driving by or soliciting business door-to-door. Most seek an upfront payment to “go buy materials” and then disappear. Others do fast and faulty repairs (like spreading used motor oil to coat driveways) or may stop mid-job to extort more money … or find subsequent chores to continue the wallet-draining. What to know:

  • Good contractors are usually too busy to make unsolicited house calls; out-of-state license plates suggest fly-by-day “gypsy travelers” who spend summers going state to state to con elderly homeowners.
  • Despite scare tactics urging immediate repairs, most home repairs can wait until you get several bids from contractors. Get recommendations (and check results) from neighbors, building officials and lumberyards/plumbing/electrical supply shops where pros shop.
  • Don’t pay until the job is complete. Reputable contractors have credit lines to buy materials, although a deposit may be required for major projects like replacing a roof, windows, etc.


Vacation Rentals
Angling for upfront payment (usually by wire transfer or prepaid debit card), scammers steal photos and descriptions of properties from Realtor, hotel or vacation rental websites, and then clone the ads, offering supposed hot-spot “rentals” at discounted prices. What to know:

  • Before answering ads, Google the address, as well as names, emails and phone numbers of the supposed landlord or agent. Also cut and paste into a search engine large chunks of the descriptive text. Red flags include the property is actively up for sale (not for rent), a nonexistent address, an address listed for a business or other nonresidential property, and/or postings by people who fell victim to this particular scammer.
  • Don’t rely solely on email correspondence. Many rental scams are carried out by Nigeria-based scammers (so beware of poorly written ads). You’ll want to talk by phone; beware of foreign accents and area codes that don’t correspond with that of the property’s location.
  • Travel reservations and deposits should be made with a credit card or PayPal — never with a wire transfer or prepaid debit card.


Door-to-Door Sales
Summer and fall are prime time for all types of salesmen to come knocking — literally. Some may be legit but others are not. Magazine sales, often touted as a fundraiser, are especially popular bait preying on older Americans; other popular pitches are for bogus charities, home security systems, even overpriced household devices such as vacuum cleaners. What to know:

  • Just say no to strangers. Prices of magazine subscriptions sold door to door, for instance, are often marked up about 300 percent. Legitimate salespeople and fundraisers will have “leave-behind” material to review before opening your wallet.
  • If you do make a purchase and have regrets, act quickly. The FTC’s “Cooling-Off Rule” dictates a three-day cancellation allowance for a full refund on purchases over $25. Legitimate salesmen must reveal this rule during their pitch; if they don’t, assume it’s a scam.
  • Don’t allow sales reps into your home. Asking for a drink of water or to use your bathroom is a popular way to steal medications, purses and other grab-and-go items.


Two of three moves occur in the summer, and thousands each year end this way: After a moving company quotes a reasonable (if not lowball) offer, after the truck is loaded, the quoted price jumps sky-high, and belongings may be held hostage until customers pay the extra money. What to know:

  • Stick with known companies. Most rip-off rogues are movers who advertise on Craigslist or crude roadside signs. Visit and verify a company’s licenses and complaint history.
  • Pass on any mover who won’t do an on-site inspection of your goods (instead giving a sight-unseen estimate), won’t provide a written estimate or says workers will determine the price after loading, demands a large deposit before the move, or asks you to sign blank or incomplete documents. Those red flags indicate a scammer.
  • Moving boosts your risk of identity theft. Know how to protect yourself before, during and after a move.


For information about other scams, sign up for the Fraud Watch Network. You’ll receive free email alerts with tips and resources to help you spot and avoid identity theft and fraud, and keep tabs of scams and law enforcement alerts in your area at our Scam-Tracking Map.


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