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Back-to-School Scams to Watch For Right Now

Back-to-school season means back-to-school scams that target students as well as parents.

Back-to-school season is in full swing. Students and parents are busy buying books, technology, school uniforms, and college dorm supplies. If you have a school- or college-aged child, you know how crazy this time of year can be. With everything you have going on, you’re probably not thinking about scams. But just like any occasion where there is money to be spent, scammers want to try to direct some of it their way. They target stressed and harried parents trying to get their kids set up for academic success, as well as students who may not know the warning signs. This back-to-school season, beware of these back-to-school scams.

Back-to-School Shopping Scams

You already know that back-to-school shopping can be expensive. Between clothes, books, tech gadgets, and supplies, it adds up fast. So everybody, students and parents alike, want to find bargains. Scammers try to take advantage of your thriftiness with back-to-school shopping scams.

They run these scams in two ways. One way is creating a fake website with cheap school supplies for sale. Their prices can’t be beat – but that’s because they don’t actually have anything to sell. When you enter your payment information at checkout, they steal it. Whatever you purchased never arrives. And they will charge as much as they can on your card before you catch on.

The other back-to-school shopping scam uses phishing. They send you an email or a text claiming you missed a school supply delivery. You need to reschedule it if you want to get these things you ordered. And they helpfully provide a link to reschedule it. In reality, that particular delivery never existed. Clicking the link may download malware to your device. Or it may prompt you to enter your personal information, which the scammer then uses to steal your identity.

How to Avoid Back-to-School Shopping Scams

The best – and easiest – way to avoid back-to-school shopping scams is to only purchase school supplies in person at a physical store. But that’s not feasible for many people. A close second is to only shop from reputable brands with names you recognize. Be extremely suspicious of any website offering supplies significantly cheaper than anywhere else. We all know the saying about things that are too good to be true. In this case, it’s worth paying a little more to know you’re not getting scammed.

When it comes to the missed delivery messages, don’t open them at all. First, check if you’re expecting a delivery from that company. If you’re not, that’s a scam. If you are, reach out to the company. They likely have a customer service phone number or email address you can contact to confirm. This information will probably be in your initial order confirmation email.

In all cases, it’s best to pay with a credit card over other methods. Credit cards have the most protection if someone does get your payment information. And always save all of your receipts and confirmations. If you need to dispute something or report it as a scam, these will help.

Winning a Back-to-School Shopping Spree

This back-to-school scam is a variation on another common scam – fake sweepstakes and lotteries. In this version, a scammer reaches out to you or your child and claims you’ve won a back-to-school shopping spree! All you have to do to claim the prize is click on this link and enter your information on their website. Or perhaps there’s a small administrative or processing fee that you have to pay first.

Whatever the story, saying that you won a prize you didn’t enter to win is a huge warning sign of a scam. If you enter your information, now the scammer has it. And any money you send to them is gone. But sometimes the motivation is much more mundane. The information form in the link asks for your email. Once you enter it, they sell it to every advertiser who will pay, filling up your inbox with all sorts of spam.

How to Avoid Fraudulent Shopping Sprees

The advice for avoiding this back-to-school scam is fairly simple: If you get a notification that you won a back-to-school shopping spree, it is almost guaranteed to be a scam. Free shopping sprees are incredibly rare. And you will never win a sweepstakes, drawing, or giveaway that you didn’t enter. If you get a notification, research the company and you’ll probably find a scammer. If it doesn’t list a company, that’s definitely a scam.

Another key point to avoid this one: Talk to your child about it, too! This back-to-school scam doesn’t just target parents. It also targets the students themselves. If they don’t know scammers are out there, a free shopping spree will just sound like a great stroke of luck. Let them know about the risks, and tell them to come to you before they click.

Student Tax Scams

This back-to-school scam especially targets students and parents of students who are getting ready to start college. It’s a variation on more common IRS scams. This one most often happens via phone call, but can also happen through email, text, or even physical mail.

In this scam, the scammer contacts the student or their parents pretending to be with the IRS. They claim that no one has paid the student’s “student tax.” If the tax isn’t paid, the student won’t be able to attend college courses. Even worse, they or their parents might end up in jail.

The fake IRS agent uses fear and threats to get the student or their parents to wire money, buy a gift card and read them the number, or give them their bank account or credit card information in order to pay this tax. If you wire money or read them a gift card number, that money is gone. If you give them your bank account or card number, they can drain those accounts. It’s simply a scheme to get as much money as they can trick you into handing over.

How to Avoid the Student Tax Scam

You have a lot of things to worry about when sending your child off to college, but a surprise tax isn’t one of them. There is no “student tax” – it just does not exist. If a student moving from high school to college changes their or their parents’ tax bill, they will find out when they file their taxes. And the IRS will never call, text, or email for their first contact, and they will never require an immediate response. They will always send a letter, and that letter will give plenty of time for you to follow up and verify that it’s legitimate.

This back-to-school scam can target students, too. And students who are preparing to make the jump into adulthood and independent living may just assume paying their student tax is part of their new responsibilities. It’s important to talk to your child and let them know about these types of situations. Not just that there’s no such thing as a “student tax,” but that scams are out there and they should be vigilant.

Scholarship and Financial Aid Scams

School is expensive. Private schools and college are especially pricey. When you’re looking at tuition bills that can be six figures at some universities, scholarship dollars sound great. Which is why one of scammers’ favorite back-to-school scams dangle scholarships and financial aid as their bait.

In one type of scholarship scam, the scammer creates a fake scholarship and asks for an application fee. It may not be a huge amount, but if they can get a lot of people to apply, they can make a lot of money. Others do something similar, but instead of asking for money, they ask for your personal information. Very few legitimate scholarship applications want more than your name and contact information. No scholarship should ever need your social security number, driver’s license number, bank information, or other sensitive data.

Some scholarship scams use phishing strategies. They tell a student that they won a scholarship, but they have to pay a small administrative fee to get the money. But after they pay the fee, no money arrives. Some scammers operate fake scholarship search services. For a fee, they offer to find scholarships that match your profile, and if you don’t get any of them they’ll give you a refund. But once you pay their fee, they’ll disappear. And on the financial aid side of these back-to-school scams, scammers will set up services claiming you have to pay a fee to apply for government aid or get federal student loans.

How to Avoid Scholarship and Financial Aid Scams

You should always be suspicious of any message saying you won something you don’t remember entering. It’s practically guaranteed to be a scam. And remember that no legitimate scholarship will charge you a fee, either to apply or to get the money. The whole point of scholarships is to give you money, not make you pay more!

When it comes to scholarship search services, there are some out there that are legit. But if you want to use one, do your research first. Check their reviews on Google or the Better Business Bureau, and search for their company name with the word “scam” or “fraud” to see what comes up. If you can’t find anything or what you do find looks bad, don’t work with them. Also beware any company that guarantees a scholarship. While legitimate companies can help your student identify scholarships they qualify for, no real company to guarantee they’ll get anything.

Finally, remember that it should never cost anything to apply for federal student aid. And you don’t have to pay a service to apply for you, either. The government has a form called the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA. It’s very easy to fill out on your own, and it’s a single application for all the federal government’s financial aid programs. And it doesn’t cost anything, ever, to apply – “Free” is right there in the name.

College Test Prep Scams

If you have a high school student, this back-to-school season may have you thinking about preparing for the ACT or the SAT. High scores on these tests can help your child get into better schools, and maybe even get them a chance at merit-based scholarships.

But scammers make big money on test season. They may run online shopping scams, which we already talked about, specifically targeting students and parents with fraudulent test prep material. But much more commonly, they target parents. Scammers call up parents and claim their child placed an order for test prep materials or services, but the payment didn’t go through. Now they need your credit card information to process the payment.

This sounds believable to many parents. In fact, many are happy their child is enthusiastic enough about studying for the test to order their own supplies. So they give their card information to the person on the phone. Now the scammer can use that card to their heart’s content.

How to Avoid College Test Prep Scams

It’s a good general rule to never give your credit card information to anyone who calls you. If you think the order actually might be legitimate, hang up the phone anyway. Then call the company at a known customer service number and ask about the order.

Another option would be to hang up the phone and ask your child if they actually ordered test prep materials. This will let you know for sure that it’s a scam. You can also research any company claiming to be a test prep company. Try searching for the company name with the word “scam” or “complaint” to see what comes up.

High School Diploma Scams

These back-to-school scams are unique because they mostly target adult students who want to earn their high school diploma later in life. In this scam, the scammer creates a fake online school offering to help aspiring students get their high school equivalency diploma. But these fake schools aren’t able to grant any diplomas. Instead, they charge lots of fees for unreasonable things. In the end, you’ve spent a lot of money and have nothing to show for it.

How to Avoid High School Diploma Scams

If you’re hoping to go back to school this season to get your high school equivalency diploma, watch out for warning signs of a high school diploma scam. Charging fees for the classes is completely normal. Legitimate programs have to pay their instructors, so they charge class fees. You may have to pay for the test, as well. But no legitimate program will want you to pay for your diploma. Once you’ve passed the tests and earned your diploma, the diploma itself shouldn’t cost you anything.

Also avoid any program claiming you can earn it quickly, that you won’t need to take classes or pass tests, or that work experience or “life experience” can count towards your diploma. None of these are true of a legitimate program. Any person, company, or program who tells you these things is trying to scam you. And any program that claims you can take your final test to earn your diploma online is a scam, too. The tests are legally required to be in-person, proctored, and closed-book. An online test doesn’t count towards your diploma.

Some scammers claim their school or program is affiliated with the federal government. They’re trying to make themselves look legitimate. But that’s actually a huge warning sign. It’s the state, not federal government, issuing high school diplomas, so they aren’t affiliated with any of these programs. If they’re claiming that affiliation, you should be suspicious of what they’re hiding under their pretend legitimacy.

It’s Back-to-School Scam Season

Scams are out there all year long. From the rise in romance scams around Valentine’s Day to the variety of scams around the winter holidays, scammers have different tactics that they pull out for different seasons. Right now, with back-to-school preparations in full swing, they’re pulling out their back-to-school scams.

Back to school season is already so expensive, nobody wants to lose more to a scam. So stay alert and be cautious. Buy only from trusted sources, and be suspicious of anyone who reaches out to you, especially if they want you to give them money. Research companies to find out if they’re legitimate. And know when you should have to pay (buying school supplies; tuition) and when you shouldn’t (winning a scholarship; applying for federal student aid). Always remember that if it sounds too good to be true, it’s probably a scam.

Talk to your child about these scams, too. Many of them target the students as well as their parents. Make sure they’re equipped not jut to protect your money, but to protect their personal information and spot scams once they’re out on their own. Students of all ages can be targets – have the conversation as soon as you can, with age-appropriate information.

Finally, if you do get caught in a back-to-school scam, take action immediately. Follow these steps to secure your money, yourself, and your child.

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