Away from home, young, impressionable, and carrying cash—college students are tempting targets for all manner of crooks.
So, whether you’re just arriving on campus for the first time, or entering your final year, knowing which college scams to watch out for can save you cash.
College Scam #1: Blackmail
There are plenty of opportunities for less-than-advisable decisions during college. However, with a smartphone camera in almost every student’s pocket, the landscape for college shenanigans is no longer as forgiving.
If you break the rules (or the law), remember that it’s possible that someone will catch your misdeeds on camera. Meaning that one moment’s poor decision can easily lead to you being outed—or blackmailed.
News reports of students blackmailing other students, or even their teachers, can be found at colleges across the nation. One female student at Ohio State University was blackmailed after private photos were recovered from her stolen laptop.
Another student reports being blackmailed by the person they paid to help write a college essay.
How to Avoid Blackmail Scams in College?
The obvious answer is not engaging in any activities that could later be held over your head. Even then, no one expects to have their laptop stolen.
Instead, remember that college is the real world and actions can have serious consequences. If you’re about to do anything you wouldn’t want to do in front of your parents or potential employers, think it through.
If you do find yourself in a bad situation that involves someone asking for money to keep quiet about catching your poor decision on camera, therapist Mike Leary gives this advice:
“Blow the cover and take your lumps. The only thing that gives a blackmailer power is you by trying to hold on to status quo. Instead, it’s time to grow and mature by believing in yourself and dealing with the situation.”
College Scam #2: The Admin Office Claims Your Check Bounced
Considering how difficult it is to construct the perfect schedule or four-year plan, telling a student that they’re about to lose their spot is a surefire way to incite panic.
However, this is actually a phone scam similar to that in which fake IRS reps contact you with a demand for payment. Here’s how it works:
Someone claiming to be from your college’s Admin Office calls to say that you owe money for tuition. Maybe they’ll mention a grant or scholarship was canceled, or a loan payment didn't go through, or a check bounced.
Whichever it was, if you don't pay immediately, the scammer says, you’ll be dropped from your classes.
Next, they give instructions for you to wire money, or even drop off cash, to someone who has nothing to do with your college. They might claim that this unorthodox payment method is because of the extreme lateness of your tuition.
More so, they’ll claim that if you don't do it today, it will be too late.
How to Avoid Tuition Phone Scam?
If you’re ever contacted about an unpaid bill, your first step should be to get the bill in writing. Not via email, but by walking into the actual college office. Also, notify your parents about any unexpected requests from your college.
Still worried that their unpaid tuition threats might be true? Take a deep breath.
While it’s true that you can be dropped from classes for non-payment, it doesn’t happen overnight. Additionally, your college should quickly be able to verify overdue bills for your records—much faster than you’ll be removed from a class roster.
Finally, remember that no college (or legitimate business, really) will ever tell you to send a payment via the Western Union, so avoid any requests to do so like the plague.
College Scam #3: Scholarships, Grants, or Loans That Require a Fee
Applying for scholarships, grants, and loans are a daunting process. Some scammers play on student’s desire to avoid the paperwork by promising easy approval for tuition or financial assistance—just as long as they pay an upfront fee.
You might be tempted by assistance that sounds like quick money, but remember that nothing free is ever easy—especially applications for scholarships and grants.
How to Avoid Falling for a Scholarship, Grant, or Loan Scam?
Upfront fees should be a big red flag. You shouldn’t ever have to pay for information about tuition assistance. After all, these programs are in place to help those who are financially struggling, and no legitimate organization would require an upfront expense when offering to help students fund their education.
If you do find yourself tempted by an offer, make sure to check it out both online and with your school’s financial aid representatives before handing over any personal information.
College Scam #4: You’re Asked to Cash a Check for Someone Else
Check cashing scams involve someone trying to trick you into cashing their counterfeit check, then sending them the funds before you’ve realized the check bounced. Here are a few common scenarios to watch out for:
Craigslist Sale Check Scams
You’re selling an item online and are contacted by an interested buyer. The only problem, they say, is that they only have a check available for payment.
To tempt you into ignoring your better judgment, the scammer might even offer to pay you more than the asking price. Heck, they’ll write it for over the amount. Just cash the check and send them the difference! Of course, the check is counterfeit and you are left on the hook for your negative balance.
Lottery Winning Check Scam
You are notified by email that you have won a lottery or contest. They’ll ask you to wire transfer fees, taxes, or provide your Social Security number and/ or details of your accounts or credit cards in order to receive the “winnings.”
In another version, you receive a counterfeit check for your “winnings,” but are asked to wire fees or taxes back before you can receive the full payment.
Secret Shopping Check Scam
Secret shopping has long been regarded as an easy and fast way to make extra cash. The only problem is that, while there are some legitimate jobs, the secretive nature of this industry makes it rife with scams.
One such secret shopping scam relates to counterfeit checks. You’ll respond to an ad looking to hire people to act as secret shoppers. The company mails you a cashier’s check for a large amount, along with instructions to cash it at a bank or credit union. You’re told to go pose as a customer and wire the money from that check (which was counterfeit) to your “employer,” who is actually a scammer.
What makes this one really tricky is the use of wire transferring services as an integral part of the scam. While most of the time requests to wire money is a red flag, this secret shopping scam pretends that the wire transfer service, itself, is the business being “secretly shopped”—making it slightly more difficult to spot.
How to Avoid Check Cashing Scams?
Never, ever use your account to cash a check for a stranger, no matter how in need you are of funds or how much they claim you’re doing them a favor. It can take days for a check to hit—and bounce—giving them plenty of time to disappear and leave you responsible for righting a negative balance.
College Scam #5: Rent-To-Own Rarely Makes Sense
As a college student, you’re likely living on a tight budget and finding it difficult to afford big-ticket items such as electronics, appliances or furniture. So, it’s likely tempting when you see so many companies offering rent-to-own programs.
What’s rent-to-own? For a small monthly fee, you get products upfront, then continue making payments until you eventually own them.
While not an outright scam, the problem is that the final price on rent-to-own products is much higher than it would be if you were to purchase the item outright elsewhere.
How to Avoid Paying Sky-High Prices for Items You Need?
Of course, saving ahead of time is best. But sometimes you need those items sooner rather than later. In those cases, consider building your credit with a secured credit card, as interest rates on the purchase will likely be lower than the final rent-to-own price.
Just be sure to check out potential discounts using your student ID before purchasing.
Finally, note that there’s one exception to saving with rentals—textbooks. Check out A College Freshman’s Budget-Friendly Survival Guide: 32 Ways to Save Money to learn which companies offer students semester-long textbook rentals as a way to cut school costs.
College Scam #6: Public Wi-Fi Isn’t Private
We’ve previously talked about the dangers of public Wi-Fi as it relates to airports, coffee shops, and other connections you might use during travel. However, it’s equally important for students to understand that some of the free Wi-Fi connections available on campus aren’t secure.
We’re not talking about your university’s official Wi-Fi. Instead, we mean secondary networks that are innocuously named “Free Wi-Fi” or something similar. Scammers can set up these connections, either as ad hoc (unmanaged) or peer-to-peer networks, as tempting, free Wi-Fi across campus.
Unbeknownst to anyone who connects, however, these aren’t secure—and any information that you enter while using said connection, including passwords, banking info, or personal data, can all be collected.
This can leave you open for identity theft and financial fraud. Even worse, if your computer has automatic sharing enabled, the scammer can access data files on your system, including private photos or documents containing sensitive information.
How to Stay Safe While Using Public Wi-Fi?
Be sure to verify the name of any connection that you’re using before logging on. Additionally, save your banking and other sensitive online activities for when you’re connected to a secure and private account.
Finally, consider using a Virtual Private Network (VPN) for an extra layer of security. This routes all of your activity through a secure network before your data hits a public WiFi connection.
Bottom Line on Avoiding College Campus Scams?
As a student, you already have enough on your plate (and demands on your account) without having to worry about scams that can cost you money and time. To make sure that your efforts are focused on graduating from college—and not the school of hard knocks—remember these tips:
- Don’t cash checks for anyone.
- Grants, loans, and scholarships should never charge an upfront fee.
- If someone asks you to wire money, it’s a giant red flag.
- When considering financing, do the math to make sure you’re not paying more than needed.
- Public WiFi isn’t secure enough for private data.
Remembering the above scams that are common on college campuses can help cover your bum, but there are still other methods that crooks will use to try and trick you out of handing over cash.
When it doubt, ask your parents or, if it’s related to the school, head to a teacher or admin. Remember, you’re already paying enough for school—there’s no reason to add the cost of scams onto your final education bill.
Additional Resources for College Students:
- Why You Need to Think About Investing in a Retirement Account Your First Year of College
- Is It Still Worth It to Go to College? The Experts Say, Yes!
- Top Student Loan Scams: Obama Student Loan Forgiveness, Money Up-Front & Other Tricks