Sadly, scammers are at every corner and in every facet of society. Unfortunately, this includes college financing.
Some scammers target financially stressed high school seniors and college students who are burdened with large tuition bills and trying to avoid student loan debt.
While applying for real scholarships and not winning any can be disappointing, winning scholarships only to find out they're not real can be even more disappointing.
To avoid this trickery, here are four signs of scholarship scams.
1. They say you won a scholarship that you never applied for
Sure, easy scholarships, such as the CollegeProwler.com "No Essay" scholarship, exist. They're not so easy that you don't even have to apply, however. Even in the 21st century, winning without applying is not possible.
Scholarships.com cautions, "You always have to apply for scholarships in order to receive them. If you receive an e-mail that says you have won a scholarship from an organization that you have never heard of, let alone applied to, ignore it. Such e-mails could easily be an internet phishing scam or some other type of ruse."
In scholarship applications, as in life, be wary of free money that requires no effort.
2. They claim to do all the work for you
Admittedly, filling out scholarship applications can be difficult. But never, ever pay a company to apply for you, as it's both a scam and grounds for disqualification if you're caught.
As Scholarships.com, points out, applying for scholarships usually entails a fair amount of work, but it's work — writing about yourself, filling out personal information — that only you can do.
Getting help from a parent or school counselor is fine. Having someone to do the work for you, paid or unpaid, is not cool.
3. You're given unreasonable time pressure
Scholarships pretty much always have deadlines. You may even find yourself hearing about a scholarship opportunity right before the deadline. That's not a sign of a scam. A sign of a scam is being contacted by the scholarship company to act fast.
According to FinAid.org, "If you must respond quickly and won't hear about the results for several months, it might be a scam. A scholarship scam might say that grants are handed out on a 'first come, first served' basis and urge you to act quickly. Few, if any, legitimate scholarship sponsors make awards on a rolling basis."
Remember: Good and legitimate scholarships often receive so many applications that they'd be crazy to seek more. They're not going to come to you, most likely, and most definitely not at the last moment. Don't buy into this.
4. You're asked to pay
The point of a scholarship is that they pay you. Not the other way around. FinAid.org cautions that scammers will sometimes charge application or other fees of anywhere between $2 and $5,000. That's not how legitimate scholarships work.
Other times, scammers will coffer to help you find scholarships at a fee or even "guarantee" that you'll get aid. They'll use sales terminology like "buy now or miss this opportunity" or "act fast before this offer expires." That's not scholarship jargon, it's sales jargon. In this case, it's also scam jargon.
Federal Student Aid (the FAFSA people) criticizes this method on its website, by stating, "Don't give in to pressure tactics. Remember, the 'opportunity' is a chance to pay for information you could find yourself for free."
You always should do the work and the applications are always free. Don't ever think otherwise.
Some more tell-tale signs of a scam
This list may seem obvious but keep in mind: Students accepted to good colleges have fallen for it. Scammers are incredibly good at what they do sometimes and have their own techniques and language to reel people in. If you can recognize the language ahead of time, you'll have a better shot of avoiding the scam.
To further help you detect scholarship or other financial aid scams, here are some scam sample lines put together by the Federal Trade Commission:
"The scholarship is guaranteed or your money back."
"You can't get this information anywhere else."
"I just need your credit card or bank account number to hold this scholarship."
"We'll do all the work. You just pay a processing fee."
"The scholarship will cost some money."
"You've been 'selected' by a 'national foundation' to receive a scholarship," or "You're a finalist" in a contest you never entered.
Investigate if anything ever sounds off to you. There are plenty wild and wacky scholarships out there, but it's still up to you to apply for them. And they're free to apply.
Jon Fortenbury is an Austin-based freelance writer who specializes in higher education. He's been published by the likes of the Huffington Post and The Atlantic and is a featured contributor to Schools.com. Follow him on Twitter @jonwrites.