These days it seems that there is a scam for every season, and back-to-school is no different. From phony financial aid, to debt scams, and phishing emails designed to steal your identity information, there are a lot of threats to study up on.
Of course, many of these scams are just different twists on the threats we see year-round. For instance, debt collection, tax, and imposter scams, were named some of the top frauds of 2018 by the Federal Trade Commission, costing U.S. consumers over $1.48 billion. And many of the same techniques are being directed at students, graduates, and their parents.
Here’s what to watch out for:
Identity Theft— While you might think that identity theft would only be a risk to older students applying for aid, in fact over a million children were victims of identity theft in 2017, with two thirds of them under the age of eight. This is because children’s identities can be more valuable to cyber thieves as their Social Security numbers have never been used before, so they have clean credit reports that are rarely checked.
Some savvy scammers have even started to ask parents for their child’s identity information when applying for common back-to-school activities, such as joining a sports league or after school class.
Phony Tuition Fees—“Don’t lose your spot!” This is the call to action scammers are using to trick students and parents into paying a made-up tuition fee. You may receive an official looking email, or receive a call directly from scammers, hoping to take advantage of the stress that many people feel around getting into the school of their choice. Some victims of this scam have already paid tuition, but are confused by last-minute requests for a fee to save their spot.
Financial Aid Fraud—Education has become incredibly expensive in recent years, and scammers know it. That’s why they put up ads for phony financial aid, and send phishing emails, hoping to lure applicants with the promise of guaranteed assistance, or time sensitive opportunities.
Many pose as financial aid services that charge an “advance fee” to help students apply for loans. When you fill out an application the fraudsters potentially get both your money (for the “service”) and your identity information. This can lead to identity theft, costing victims an enormous amount of time and money.
Student Loan Forgiveness—We’ve seen a proliferation of social media ads and emails offering to help student borrowers reduce, or even completely forgive, their loan debt. Some of these offers are from legitimate companies that lend advice on complicated financial matters, but others are scams, charging exorbitant fees with the promise of renegotiating your debt. Just remember, debt relief companies are not permitted to negotiate federal student loans.
Phony Student Taxes—Another common scam that targets students are phony messages and phone calls from the IRS, claiming that the victim needs to immediately pay a “federal student tax”, or face arrest. Of course, this tax does not exist.
Shopping Scams—From books, clothes, and supplies, to dorm accessories, the start of the school year often means the start of an online shopping frenzy. That’s when students and parents are susceptible to phishing emails that offer “student discounts” on popular items, or claim that they “missed a delivery” and need to click on an attachment. Links in these emails often lead to phony websites that collect their payment information, or malware. The same is true for offers of cheap or “free” downloads on normally expensive textbooks.
Here are some tips to avoid these sneaky school-related scams:
- Be suspicious of any school programs that ask for more information than they need, like your child’s Social Security number just to join a club.
- Only shop on reputable e-commerce sites for back to school supplies. Buy textbooks from recommended providers, and avoid any “free” digital downloads. Consider installing a web advisor to steer you away from risky websites.
- When seeking financial aid, ask a school adviser for a list of reputable sources. Avoid any offers that sound too good to be true, like “guaranteed” or zero interest loans. Remember that it does not cost money to simply apply for financial aid.
- If you receive any threatening emails or phone calls about loans or fees, do not respond. Instead, contact your loan provider directly to check on the status of your account.
- Avoid using unsecured public Wi-Fi on campus, since it’s easy for a hacker to intercept the information that you are sending over the network. Only connect to secure networks that require a password.
- Install comprehensive security software all of your computers and devices. Look for software that protects you from malware, phishing attempts, and risky websites, as well as providing identity protection.