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Every week, join Sydney Waters as she helps you navigate life as a smart consumer. You'll cover everything in avoiding the latest scams, including phishing emails, medical equipment fraud, understanding layaway, hiring a reputable tax preparer, and even digital spring cleaning. Add to your toolbox and flip through your Consumer Handbook Thursdays during NPR’s Morning Edition at 6:42 a.m. and 8:42 a.m., only on KRCU.

Consumer Handbook: Financial Aid Scams

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Pakorn_Khantiyaporn/Getty Images/iStockphoto
Back to school education knowledge college university concept

While prospective college students await their highly anticipated acceptance letters this spring, they're also starting to think about finding financial aid. Some companies offer scholarship opportunities or help finding aid for a fee, but are they really the best option for students?

For students struggling to pay for tuition, a sudden scholarship offer or a financial aid company that guarantees results can seem like a dream come true – but it could also be the setup for a scam.

Some scammers will pose as financial aid representatives and use high-pressure tactics to get students to pay a “processing fee” to be eligible for a “guaranteed” scholarship or grant. They may also use a fake scholarship application to steal personal or financial information from applicants.

Fraudulent financial aid companies may promise a money-back guarantee if students can’t secure a scholarship, but they also set so many conditions that it can be impossible to get a refund. Legitimate companies can sometimes help students find scholarships, but they will not guarantee results.

Students should also be on the lookout for unsolicited scholarship offers – especially those asking for an application fee. Most scholarships are free to apply for.

Tips for avoiding financial aid scams:

Check for federal aid first. Students can fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and find other financial aid resources at studentaid.gov. This no-cost application is a good starting point for your search.

Ask trusted sources. Discuss your options with your guidance counselor or financial aid office – they're available to help you! They may recommend scholarships or free resources for finding aid. If you’re considering a paid service, ask them if they have experience with it.

Take your time. Don’t rush into paying for help at a seminar and be cautious if a company pressures you to buy immediately. There are lots of options for finding financial support, many of them free, so give yourself time to research.

Do your research. Investigate any financial aid company you consider using.

Sydney Waters is the new Regional Director of Better Business Bureau in Cape Girardeau and responsible for outreach efforts in Southern Illinois and Eastern and Southwest Missouri.