The back to school time of the year represents a flurry of activity: You’re racing around trying to get all your kids equipped for the upcoming school year, retailers are stocking the shelves and staying open later to accommodate all the last-minute shoppers, and schools are preparing for an influx of students.
But what you may not realize is that, as we mentioned in our recent back to school article, this time of year is busy for scammers as well, who are looking to obtain your information in an attempt to steal you identity or to steal your hard-earned money (or both).
But the fact of the matter is that school is a necessary part of life, and as such, you need to be armed with all the information you can in order to avoid being scammed this time of year.
As a result, we’ve compiled a list of common back to school scams, how you can identify them, and how you can avoid falling victim to them in the first place.
With this in mind, we’ll begin with the most popular back to school scam: scholarships and financial aid.
Scholarship & Financial Aid Scams
According to this Business Insider article, it’s 400% more expensive to attend college in the U.S. than it was just 30 years ago. Because of the huge expense associated with higher education, more students that ever are applying for grants, scholarships, and other types of financial aid in order to offset these costs.
As such, scammers are out in full force this time of year, preying on those requiring financial assistance. But the good news is that if you know what to look for, you can avoid them altogether.
First, no legitimate scholarships or grants will require any kind of advance or processing fee, and no one can improve your chances of obtaining a scholarship or a grant by paying them money.
With this said, financial aid and scholarship seminars are popular this time of year, so if you decide to attend one, the FTC recommends immunizing yourself against their hard-sell techniques and taking your time before making a decision.
In addition, pay close attention to the paperwork you’re filling out, as no legitimate scholarship or financial aid application will request credit card or bank account information.
In fact, almost everything you need to know about receiving financial aid can be found online, and for the little bit that can’t, your school counselor can prove to be an invaluable resource. In addition, you can find a variety of free information sources through Federal Student Aid program.
Also, a good rule of thumb to keep in mind that the only way to receive educational grants is by filling out Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) application.
As such, if you receive an email or a call from someone claiming that you’ve been awarded grants but you haven’t applied for any, this is a sure sign of a scam.
Finally, as with any other type of information, never give out any of your financial aid information to someone you haven’t verified as legitimate, including your Federal Student Aid PIN.
Here are some sure signs of a scholarship or financial aid scam:
- A company claims to need your checking account information in order to “verify eligibility.”
- Someone claims that they can help you find “secret” scholarships for a small weekly or monthly fee, for which they’ll claim to offer some type of money back guarantee.
- You’ve been selected as a finalist for a scholarship, and a deposit is required to “hold your position.”
- As mentioned above, any kind of unsolicited offers, which could include phone or email.
- The individual is requesting any kind of application fee beyond postage and handling charges.
Distance Education Scams
Closely related to scholarship and financial aid scams, distance education scams have become increasingly common as more and more students turn to the internet to earn their college degrees.
In fact, according to the U.S. Department of Education, ”For academic year 2006-2007, distance education programs were offered by 97 percent of public two-year institutions and 89 percent of public four-year institutions of higher education,” which has only increased since that time.
However, this doesn’t mean that all distance education degrees are created equal, so you should avoid handing your money over to any “schools” that display any of the following characteristics:
- Tuition is charged per-degree, which are often awarded based on “life experience.”
- Diplomas are guaranteed with payment, which can often be obtained in extremely short periods of time (e.g. one month or less). Also, entrance is not based on GPA, academic records, or standardized testing. These are often referred to as “diploma mills.”
- The school is not accredited, and/or is not recognized by the Council on Higher Education Accreditation.
- There are no faculty members listed on the school’s website but if there are, all of them obtained their degrees or credentials from the school.
If you fail to heed these warning signs, you may end up paying a lot of money and spending a lot of time for a degree that’s not worth much more than the paper it’s printed on. Because of this importance, be sure to do your homework about any distance education program or online university you’re thinking about attending, which you can start right here at HighYa.
Also, whether online or off, be sure to find out as much as you can from past or current students of the school.
Job scams during this time of year tend to be almost wholly targeted at college students, since scammers know that they’re probably new to an area and need a job quickly in order to make some extra money.
With this in mind, one of the most common ways to avoid an employment scam (or at the very least, a way to avoid working for a less-than-stellar employer) is to stay away from job postings that promise big earnings potential, but provide very little information about what kind of work you’ll be doing.
Also, it almost goes without saying that you should never pay someone in order to land a job, and that you should never work with someone who claims to be out of the country. Finally, while not always scams, mystery shopper positions should be avoided completely.
If you’re wondering whether or not a job listing is a scam, ask yourself the following 3 questions:
1. Where did I learn about this job? If you found a potential job through online job boards such as Monster.com or Indeed.com, the chances that it’s a scam are much lower than if you found them on Craigslist or through an unsolicited email.
2. Did I contact this company? If nothing else, if you’re being contacted by a company about an open position without first posting your resume on an online job board, it’s probably a scam. Even if you did post your resume on one of these sites, proceed with caution and do some thorough research on the company before giving out any of your personal information.
3. Does this job sound too good to be true? As with most things in life, if a potential job sounds too good to be true or things just don’t add up, it’s best to stay away.
With the warm weather and plenty of back-to-schoolers ripe for the picking, scammers often take to the streets this time of year and go door-to-door looking for their victims. This could range from posing as school district volunteers looking for donations (e.g. athletics, science programs, building additions, etc.), to selling textbooks.
However, here are some tips to help you avoid these back to school-related door-to-door scams:
Avoid high-pressure sales tactics and making a rash decision. Scammers will often make you feel like you have to hand over money this very instant. Instead, ask if these individuals have any materials related to their cause (e.g. flyers, information sheets, etc.). Regardless of their answer, tell them you’d like to think about it and ask how else you can donate (e.g. online, mailing in a check, dropping the money off at the school, etc.).
Ask questions. If you’re familiar with the school these individuals claim to represent, ask them some specific questions such as: “How’s Principal [name] doing?” or, “What do you think about this year’s curriculum?” If you know these answers to these questions you can quickly find out whether or not they actually represent the school. Even if you don’t know the answers to these questions, it can often throw would-be scammers off.
Identity Theft Scams
Last, but certainly not least, we’ll talk about identity theft scams, which is something we covered in-depth in our recent Identity Theft article.
When back to school time rolls around, you’ll probably be signing a lot of documents. If you’re a college student, this could include entrance applications, apartment leases, financial aid applications, new student paperwork, credit applications, and much more. And if you’re a parent, this could mean filling out paperwork for daycare or even co-signing for your college student for one thing or another.
Because of this, here are a few tips you can use in order to help prevent your identity from being stolen during back to school time:
- Obtain a free credit report from each of the 3 bureaus. Since you’re eligible for one free credit report per year, the back to school time can act as a good reminder to reorder. If necessary, you can even sign up for a fee-based credit monitoring service that among other things, will contact you if it appears your identity has been compromised.
- Unless you’ve initiated the process, don’t give out your personal information over the phone. In addition, you might receive emails from would-be scammers that reference something related to back to school, such as “You’ve won $500 in free school supplies,” or, “Click here to buy an iPad for $100!” If so, don’t open them, and never download any attachments they contain, which could be disguised as a virus.
- Make sure that your anti-virus software is up to date and that your firewall is active.
- When filling out paperwork online, make sure that you’re using a secure connection. To check, simply look for a “lock” image in the upper left hand corner of your web browser.
What Can You Do if You’re a Back to School Scam Victim?
If you follow the recommendations above, you’ll be a more informed consumer and less likely to fall victim to a scam, whether it’s back to school or any other time of year. But what should you do if you’ve already been scammed?
First, file a police report with your local precinct. Keep in mind that the scammers don’t have to be located in your area, but the crime does. Then, make sure to file a report with the FTC and to contact your state’s attorney general.
After all, if you’ve been scammed during the back to school season, it’s very likely that others have been as well, and by reporting the crime you can get the word out, and maybe even help others avoid the same fate.
Speaking of which, if you’ve been scammed during the back to school season or have any tips about how HighYa readers can avoid being scammed altogether, be sure to leave a comment below. Remember: sharing is caring!
More on Back to School:
- 7 Ways to Save Money & Avoid Scams When Back to School Shopping
- Is Snapchat Safe? Keeping Your Kids Safe on Social Media
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