Back to School Scams How to Identify and Avoid Scams That Target College Students

Beginning a college education can be one of the most exciting experiences in a person’s life. However, that excitement can often blind students to the fact that less-than-honorable parties are often looking to exploit prospective learners for their own financial gain. This guide is designed to break down some of the common scams that new and continuing students may encounter during their academic careers, including financial aid and scholarship scams, roommate and housing scams, phone and phishing scams, and online and social media scams. Students can also utilize this page to better understand warning signs that typically accompany these scams and what to do if they have fallen victim to one.

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Financial Aid & Scholarship Scams

Funding a college education is often one of the most pronounced roadblocks potential students work against when considering attending school. Fortunately, there are numerous systems of financial support that are designed to make this process simpler so the student may focus less on their finances and more on their education. What students need to be aware of, however, is which of these services are providing their assistance with the student’s best interest in mind, and which are interested in exploiting a student’s eagerness to develop a financially feasible college plan.

Some groups may take on the persona of an advisor, promising to help students locate and receive beneficial financial coverage packages in exchange for payment. While this may seem appealing, especially for students who are unfamiliar with locating these opportunities, it is often the case that students are paying for services that either do not deliver on their promises or can be received through a more scrupulous, honest provider.

Warning Signs:
  • Anything that seems too good to be true.

  • Promises of guaranteed aid.

  • Claims that the student is eligible for a time-sensitive opportunity.

  • The alleged service being provided does not seem worth the price being charged.

One of the most common scams students may come across occurs when pursuing scholarships. It is common for scholarships scams to be cleverly disguised as legitimate financial opportunities, utilizing language that sounds official enough to seem like the real deal. However, scholarships that require students to pay a fee with their application are often pulling in a good deal of money for the scammer while typically leaving the student without a fair shot at receiving the advertised award.

Warning Signs:
  • Any scholarship that claims students are required to pay an application fee. According to FinAid, these fees can fall between $5 and $35.

  • Claims of guaranteed awards.

  • Claims of widespread applicant eligibility.

  • Any requests for sensitive personal information.

While there are several useful services provided for students who are working against their academic loan debt, there are also fraudulent groups advertising loan forgiveness programs that rarely benefit the student. These scams often come in the form of fees required for services that can be utilized for free through more notable organizations, such as the Department of Education.

Warning Signs:
  • Any requests for fees to be paid over the phone. Several companies will charge upward of a thousand dollars, or 1 percent of the loan balance, for services students can benefit from free of charge.

  • Fraudulent companies will often also request the student’s personal information.

  • Any promises of immediate debt relief.

This scam preys more on a student’s fear than on other forms of deception. Scammers impersonate IRS representatives, contacting students and claiming they are required to pay the non-existent “Federal Student Tax.” Scammers will attempt to get students to pay directly over the phone, and if the student refuses payment, the scammer will typically further pressure them with threats of contacting the police.

Warning Signs:
  • Any phone call from a supposed IRS representative who requests immediate payment.

  • Requests for specific forms of payment and denial of others, such as cash versus card.

  • Threats of involving local law enforcement should the student not pay the supposedly due balance.

What Should You Do If You Fall for One of These Scams?

One of the most important things a scam victim can do is report what has happened. Depending on the scam, these reports may go to different parties. In regards to the Federal Student Tax scam, for instance, students can report the incident to TIGTA; students who are victim to fraudulent commercial financial advice may file a report with the Federal Trade Commission. What is important is being aware of scammers in the future and providing what information you are able to help stop other students from becoming victims.

Roommate & Rental Housing Scams

Students attending local universities may have the opportunity to live at home, but many are either moving out of state or are interested in moving out. This poses a problem for many students since most will have had little experience with looking for a good housing deal. Unfortunately, many scammers see this lack of experience as an opportunity to exploit new students. The following are some common housing scams students may encounter when attending college.

A common scam that may occur during the roommate search involves being sent a fake check from an interested renter who is living out of the area. The concept behind the scam is that the fake check used to secure the renter’s spot will be for more than the necessary holding deposit. The scammer will then request for the difference to be returned, and the student being scammed will return the money, paying the difference directly out of their account.

Warning Signs:
  • Any request for you to send the potential roommate any money, regardless of reasoning.

  • Potential roommate claims to be living out of the area.

  • Potential roommate refuses other forms of face-to-face communication, such as video chat.

Craigslist is an excellent tool for finding roommates, but students should exercise caution. Something to be aware of is that scammers put extensive work into their story, telling you information regarding their academic pursuits, job prospects or religious affiliation. Many scammers will claim to be living outside of the country and attempt some form of the fake check scam described above. Some scammers might also be pushy, demanding the student to remove their Craigslist post and accept a deposit.

Warning Signs:
  • Potential roommate claims to be living out of the country.

  • Potential roommate refuses other forms of face-to-face communication, such as video chat.

  • Any request for you to send the potential roommate money.

While many renters find housing that fits their needs at an affordable cost, students should be cautious of anything that seems too good to be true. Scammers will often post ads, some including pictures, of a conveniently located apartment or house that is being rented at an unusually low rate. These scam advertisements can lead students into paying unnecessary fees to a “landlord.”

Warning Signs:
  • The offer seems too good to be true—trust your instincts.

  • Other houses/apartments of comparable size and amenities are being rented at a much higher rate.

  • Landlord requests money prior to allowing the potential renter to see the unit.

  • Landlord claims to be out of town for an extended period of time.

What Should You Do If You Fall for One of These Scams?

The first thing a student should do is review the red flags that may have presented themselves throughout the scamming process. This will help to reduce the likelihood of future exploitation. Students may also contact the police with their story; the more reports that are filed, the more likely the scammer is to be caught. Additionally, students can file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission to prevent future dishonest business practices.

Phone & Phishing Scams

Have you ever received a phone call or email asking for personal information or payment for a service you weren’t aware of? Before offering up your credit card, it’s important for students to be informed on phone and phishing scams. Students should be wary of phone calls from unknown numbers or emails from unreliable sources. Below are some of the common phone and phishing scams that students may encounter while pursuing a degree.

Federal grant funding can make a financial difference for students, but it’s also an avenue for scammers. These scammers call students, claiming they have been awarded a grant and requesting some form of payment for their “services.” The scammer may seem legitimate, but students can be certain that if they are asked for payment, they are dealing with a scammer.

Warning Signs:
  • Requests for payment over the phone.

  • Requests for any sensitive personal information, including full name and social security number.

  • Calls from out of the blue. Grant providers will never contact students who have not previously applied for the grant in question.

Similar to the Federal Student Tax scam, this scam utilizes fear to cheat students out of their money. According to legitimate FBI representatives, scammers are calling students and demanding payment for unpaid parking tickets and overdue loans. Should the student refuse payment, the scammer will threaten to have them arrested immediately.

Warning Signs:
  • Requests for payment over the phone.

  • Threats of immediate involvement of law enforcement.

Several students have reported receiving suspicious emails from a party that claims to be a university official, such as the school president or IT department. These emails request for students to respond with their personal login information for verification reasons, allowing the scammers to access students’ personal information.

Warning Signs:
  • Be aware that these emails are designed to look just as official as those legitimately sent from a school official.

  • If the student is prompted to provide their login information in a provided link, be certain the link is specific to the university.

  • Any requests for personal information.

What Should You Do If You Fall for One of These Scams?

Always start by reporting any scam-related incidents to the necessary parties to help prevent future incidents. A student who receives a phone call from an alleged FBI agent may file a report with IC3, the Internet Crime Complaint Center. If personal student information is compromised, immediately contact your school’s IT department to have your security information updated. A student should also consider downloading a reverse phone lookup app to verify any unknown callers.

Online & Social Media Scams

Living in an increasingly connected world means students have greater access to information regarding potential schools, employment opportunities and their peers. However, the same can be said of the student: Personal information is easier to access when a student is providing it on social media. Fortunately, scammers usually still need to directly contact students to learn of anything truly sensitive. Check out the list of online and social media scams below to learn how to turn these scammers away.

Social media surveys can be a fun way to pass the time, but they can also pose the threat of hidden charges. Several of these surveys will request a student’s personal information—typically their phone number—to send their survey results. What most students are unaware of are the hidden charges that come with these results, which can cost up to $10 a month.

Warning Signs:
  • Any request for personal information, specifically a cell phone number.

  • Any request for payment.

With the intent of obtaining a student’s personal information, many scammers will develop fake social media accounts that are supposedly linked to prominent colleges and universities. While this may only result in an inbox filled with frustrating spam mail, several students have had much more valuable information stolen by scammers utilizing this technique.

Warning Signs:
  • Always be certain to check the validity of any page you follow on a social media platform.

  • Be cautious of any unsolicited invitations to “like” a page.

  • Be aware of any request for money or sensitive personal information.

In addition to allowing students to stay in touch with one another, social media also functions as an excellent marketing platform. While many of these advertisements are mostly innocent, several tout special “free deals” or “trial offers” for students. These scams often result in loss of personal information, and the student never receives the promised products.

Warning Signs:
  • If the deal requires students to provide payment or personal information, they are likely dealing with a scam.

  • Does it seem like you’re getting a remarkably good deal on a valuable product? Offers that seem too good to be true likely are.

What Should You Do If You Fall for One of These Scams?

If you’ve fallen for a social media scam, immediately report the incident to the social media website through which the scam was orchestrated. Students should cease contact with the scammer, but keep record of any interactions they had with them. This will allow the student to provide a concise account of the incident to any necessary parties. If you have lost money due to the scam, contact local law enforcement to file a report.