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Scam Alert

7 College Financial Aid Cons

Avoid the tricks scammers use to get your money

Your kids hit their teens and a thought hits you: How am I going to pay for college?

Millions of parents turn to scholarships and loans. With $154 billion in aid for undergraduates awarded last year, there's money up for grabs.

scholarship scams

— Jupiter Images/Getty Images

And money to lose: More than $100 million disappears each year in student aid scams, most of it paid as upfront fees by boomer parents seeking help with college costs. To avoid wearing the proverbial dunce cap, get schooled on these seven common schemes:

1. Filling out forms. With many scholarship deadlines approaching for this year's high school graduates, it's prime season for counselors or consultants who say they'll apply for aid on your behalf.

Typically charging from $100 to $1,000, they may do nothing more than something you can do for free: Fill out the FAFSA, or Free Application for Federal Student Aid (and note the first word). That application is required to get any federal or school-offered aid.

Or they might just take your money and run.

Of course, there are many legitimate aid consultants out there, some of them retired admissions officers. But in general you have to go looking for them. The fraudsters find you, through telemarketing or letter, having purchased student mailing lists.

2. Finding scholarships. These services claim to have lists of "secret" or "guaranteed" awards that they'll match up with your student. Truth is, there are no secret lists; these people just visit the same free websites, such as FinAid and FastWeb, that your student should visit for details of legitimate offerings.

Not one scholarship in the United States guarantees winners, nor is there a pot of unclaimed scholarship money.

Learn more about these schemes at a FinAid web page.

3. Paying for applications. The only cost of a legit scholarship is the time and sweat spent filling out an application or writing a killer essay. No fee is required.

Yet the typical pay scholarship scam — encountered on an official-looking website or in a letter or e-mail — receives up to 10,000 applications and charges fees of $5 to $35. If (and it's a big if) the outfit actually makes awards, they are few and small — maybe "a $1,000 scholarship or two," reports another FinAid web page. The same holds for a student loan — if it's legitimate, you'll never need to pay an application fee in advance. Any fees will be deducted from the loan's disbursement check.

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