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Spring Housing Guide

Aid scams hit students

Paying for college can be a hassle for parents and students. With tuition costs rising each year, many people are looking for ways to lower the price of education.

But there is one thing standing in their way.

Students continue to be scammed out of financial aid and scholarship money every year. Research from the Web site FinAid.org shows that students and parents get cheated out of $100 million annually.

According to Norm Bedford, Associate Director of Operations at the University’s financial aid office, information is available to diminish this total.

“That number’s way too high for the amount of educational resources available to parents and students,” Bedford said. “It indicates to me that people still aren’t doing their homework properly.”

The financial aid office offers a Web site and publication to assist with this homework. The Web site lists some popular scholarship search sites, while the publication informs students about different scholarship scams.

During a recent scam, the office sent an e-mail to the entire student body. A suspect was impersonating someone from the United States Department of Education and bilking money out of students nationwide.

According to Craig Cornell, director of the Student Financial Aid Office, this e-mail was sent out before University students could fall into the scam.

“We just wanted to get the information out to make people wary of it,” Cornell said.

The office’s diligence in dealing with scams has apparently paid off. According to reports from the Campus Security Department, no University students have been scammed in the past five years.

Several websites also offer students advice on how to avoid these scams. The Higher Information Education Center’s Web site offers students information on several financial aid scams, a page for frequently-asked questions and a link to free scholarship searches.

The site also has a link to the Federal Trade Commission’s Web site, which gives students telltale lines scammers may use.

A 2003 Financial Aid Update from eStudentLoan and the Financial Aid Resource Center gave students the following advice on avoiding scams: Don’t pay an application fee for a scholarship; don’t trust promises that seem too good to be true; don’t give a service or provider financial information to “hold” a scholarship for you; don’t believe a scholarship service will do all the work for you; there is no such thing as “easy” scholarship money; don’t buy into the claim that “millions of dollars in scholarship funds go unclaimed each year” and don’t buy into outrageous claims.

For Bedford, these are common sense steps that must be followed up on accurately.

“My only advice would be that donors of scholarships, they want you to have the money based on your own merits,” Bedford said. “I would give them a second look to make sure it’s truly legit.”

Second-guessing a scholarship company may save students lots of trouble. Students can contact the Fraud Information Center, Federal Trade Commission, Better Business Bureau or their state’s Attorney General to investigate a company. Another option is to speak with their financial aid office regarding the company.

Students may also investigate non-profit organizations offering scholarships. Just because an organization is non-profit does not mean it is not a scam–it just means the organization lacks shareholders and retains all its profits. These organizations must register with the State Attorney General’s Office or the Office of the Secretary of State. Many states have laws that prohibit companies from using a name that indicates they are a government agency, foundation or public benefit corporation.

If a scholarship or financial aid company gives its telephone number, students may call it to obtain more information. According to the Finaid.org website, these companies may reveal things about themselves if students tactfully ask certain questions.

Local financial aid officials offered students more advice. Lisa Hasselschwert, Senior Associate Director of Financial Aid at the University of Toledo, said she believes students should find out how much work the company plans to do for them.

“I guess one question would be, ‘Are you going to assist me in completing the FAFSA?’,” Hasselschwert said. “Any organization who’d say they would do that for a fee, I wouldn’t give the time of day to.”

Hasselschwert also said genuine companies should not complete all the work for students.

“If all they’re going to do is sit down and complete your FAFSA, that’s a red flag,” she said. “That’s too good to be true.”

Cornell reiterated the belief that calling these companies is important.

“I think just calling back is step number one,” Cornell said. “Just verify that they’re a real company.”

It is recommended that students who are scammed report it to the police. The attorney general could get involved with further action.

Although there are several defense mechanisms if a scam occurs, Judy Gardner, Vice President for Enrollment Services at Tiffin University, believes the first step is giving good advice.

“We can report them to the attorney general, but I think the family would have to agree to that too if they thought they were scammed,” Gardner said. “I think the best thing to do is keep our students and families advised.”

For more information on scholarship and financial aid scams from the Higher Information Education Center and the Federal Trade Commission, students may visit http://www.heic.org and http://www.ftc.gov.

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