College Scholarship Scams You Can't Afford To Ignore

This article was written by teen reporters from The Mash, a weekly publication distributed to Chicagoland high schools.

By Katie Jenkins, Naperville North High School

Scholarship deadlines for the 2014-15 school year are quickly approaching, and college-bound students across the nation are scrambling to finish their applications.

While receiving free money is an exciting proposition, students should know that some offers are just too good to be true. The federal government has won $22 million in judgments against scholarship scam artists, according to a 2012 Federal Trade Commission report. Finaid.org estimates that victims are cheated out of as much as $100 million each year.

However, Charles Mayfield, associate director of financial aid at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, and Carol Krashen, College & Career Center assistant at Naperville North, have advice on how to protect yourself from scholarship swindlers.

1. Application fees

A scholarship provider should only request your time, not your money. If you’re ever required to send in an application fee, you’re most likely stepping into a scam. Even if the offer guarantees a refund, it’s unlikely that you’ll ever see the money you paid up front again. Krashen and Mayfield consider an application fee to be one of the most glaring red flags you’ll encounter.

2. Limited contact information

You should always look for the sponsor’s contact information—that’s a strong indicator of whether or not a scholarship is legitimate. If you can’t find a phone number on the site’s “Contact Us” page, you may have uncovered a crucial red flag. However, a listed phone number doesn’t guarantee a valid scholarship. “If there is a phone number listed, I would Google it,” Krashen said. “If it were a scam, you are likely to find complaints and warnings from others.”

Also, be wary of scholarship foundations that list California or Florida addresses. According to FinAid, many scholarship scams are based in these two states.

3. Paying for advice on how to pay for college

You should never pay for financial aid advice. “While I wouldn’t necessarily call this a scam, we do see instances of students paying for financial aid and college financing advice,” Mayfield said. “The same information is available for free through a variety of resources—a college’s financial aid office being one or a high school counselor being another.”

The list of free resources doesn’t end there. You can search scholarships through the U.S. Department of Labor’s online search tool, careerinfonet.org/scholarshipsearch. Foundations, libraries and community organizations also provide books and information.

4. Privacy policy tricks

When a scholarship offer seems to good to be true, you should always examine its privacy policy. Here, you can discover whether or not the sponsor plans to sell your personal information to a third party. If they do, refuse the offer and continue your search.

Likewise, you should never have to give your information to a third party as part of your application. “If you have to apply for something else in order to be considered for a scholarship—for example, if you have to apply for a credit card or apply for a loan—we usually find those to be scams,” Mayfield warned.

5. Sketchy search engines

Neither Krashen nor Mayfield discourage online research, but they do advise you to be especially cautious. If you’re looking for a safe scholarship search engine, Mayfield recommends fastweb.com. “When you complete all the information for Fastweb, you’re not releasing your information for scholarships yet,” he said. “You are going to be presented with a list of scholarships, and then it is up to you to apply for each of the scholarships individually.”

Krashen agrees that national search engines have merit, but she suggests students create a separate email account if they plan to sign up for these scholarship-matching sites.

“Students have to realize that the only way that colleges are going to communicate with them is through their email,” Krashen said. “I’ve heard horror stories of students not responding to a college’s email due to the plethora of spam mail that they are getting (from such sites).”