College loan scams: 5 steps to fight them

(Photo: Jupiterimages, Getty Images)The notion of paying for college is stressful enough without having to worry about making missteps when you’re searching for scholarships.

In the quest to receiving financial aid, there is a path through the mine field.

Here are some things to remember:

1. Applying for a federal student loan is free. “Don’t ever pay for a federal financial aid application,” said Colby McCarthy, director of financial assistance at Drew University. “It’s a free application. You shouldn’t be paying for it.”

A search on Google for “federal financial aid” might result in links for companies that will help you file the form for a fee. Before you click, look for the site that ends in .gov.Better yet, here’s the link to the Free Application for Federal Student Aid.

Do you need help filling out the form? Contact your college’s financial aid office, McCarthy said.


Card cracking and 5 scams that fool millennials2. Don’t pay for help finding scholarships, the U.S. Department of Education says. Save your money. “I can’t see paying for that when you can get the help for free,” Colby said. (If you do pay, be careful of a promise of guaranteed results. A company could say it did its job if you get a $200 scholarship or a student loan offer, the education department said.)

College financial aid offices and guidance offices at high schools can help find leads for scholarships, McCarthy said. There are also online sources such as the College Board and the U.S. Department of Labor’s Career OneStop scholarship search. Don’t forget about nonprofit groups, clubs and organizations in your community. They might offer scholarships as well.

But one thing’s for sure, you probably should expect some competition. For instance, a random search by Press on Your Side found a contest by the American Fire Sprinkler Association that awards 10 $2,000 grants to students who win a drawing after answering an online quiz on fire sprinklers. The process attracts 85,000 applicants. (And only the winners are notified.)Buy PhotoMonmouth University graduates attend the commencement at PNC Bank Arts Center in Holmdel this past May. (Photo: PETER ACKERMAN/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)

3. It even sounds silly, but never pay to receive financial aid. “Most places don’t ask you for money to give you money,” McCarthy said.

4. Protect your personal information. While you’ll need to give your Social Security number when you apply for a federal student aid, you don’t need to give it when you apply for scholarships and other aid. “Be careful what information you are providing,” Colby said. “Federal aid is the only application you should be providing that Social Security number for.”

5. Never share your FSA ID with anyone, even a family member. It serves as your legal signature and only you can create one for your federal student aid application. “That’s a portal to all kinds of private information,” said Deanne Loonin, an attorney and director of the National Consumer Law Center’s Student Loan Borrower Assistance Project. Not only are you not supposed to give it out, but companies and others are not supposed to ask for it.

Unfortunately for many, paying off a college loan can be a rough ride.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, federal student loan delinquency is rising as 1.2 million recipients were 31 to 90 days delinquent in payments, owing a total of $26.5 billion in the quarter ended June 30, up from 1.19 million owing a total of $23.4 billion for the same quarter a year earlier.

“Student debt problems are growing,” Loonin said.Buy PhotoGraduates cheer during Rutgers University’s 249th anniversary commencement in May in Piscataway. (Photo: Jason Towlen/Staff Photographer)

So if you’re in trouble, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau says you should be wary of student debt relief companies. “They are misleading,” Loonin said. “They are charging a lot of money for things you can get for free and they’re often, frankly, inaccurate or pushing people into one particular option” they’re selling.

No matter whether you are delinquent or in default, there are free alternatives, such as your loan servicer, to figure out your options.  According to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, here are some warning signs:

  • Pressure to pay upfront fees. Be careful if a debt-relief company insists on payment or asks for your credit-card number before it does anything. (Federal law requires at least one debt to be settled, reduced or renegotiated before a fee can be charged.) Remember you can get help for free.
  • A promise of debt cancellation or loan forgiveness. “Payment levels under income-driven payment plans are set by federal law and, for most borrowers, loan forgiveness is only available through programs that require many years of qualifying payments,” the bureau says on its website.
  • Demands that you sign a “power of attorney.” It will give them authority to talk with your loan servicer and make decisions on your behalf.