The pressure is on for tens of thousands of high school and college students in North Carolina, as they try to access the federal financial aid available.
The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is the first step to getting money for the majority of students, and while it costs nothing to apply, experts say there are unscrupulous businesses and scammers trying to make a quick buck at their expense.
Mallory Wojciechowski, president and CEO with the Better Business Bureau of Eastern North Carolina, says the tools are there for students and parents to apply without any help.
“There’s a lot of scams to be aware of,” she says. “It can be anything from someone contacting you, saying you’ve been selected for such and such scholarship or loan and they ask for an advance fee, they ask for credit card information up front. That is a huge red flag.”
Some financial aid services are asking more than $1,000 to offer assistance in finding money for college. The Better Business Bureau says to beware of companies asking for up-front money, and use caution when entering personal information on websites. The BBB has found some fraudulent websites who then use a student’s information for the purposes of identity theft.
The BBB says when you complete your application, make sure to log out and close the browser when finished, keep personal documents and receipts in a secure place and don’t share your FAFSA PIN number with anyone. The federal help center at FAFSA.gov offers free online support and Wojciechowski says you have the tools you need at your fingertips.
“There are so many free websites that you can turn to for guidance,” says Wojciechowski. “A lot of scammers pop up because they realize there are students that are new to this process, they don’t really know what the process is, so it’s a perfect opportunity for scam artists to jump in and take advantage.”
The BBB says it’s important to note that if an organization is charging fees for financial aid advice or application assistance, they are not committing fraud unless they don’t deliver what is promised. If you suspect you are a victim of fraud or identify theft, experts advise you to contact the U.S. Department of Education and the Federal Trade Commission.