Tempted to pay for help finding a college scholarship or navigating the often complicated financial-aid process?
Don't, warns a group of state education officials and consumer advocates.
While some scholarship services can charge $50 to $190 to look for programs that can help students pay for college, there are plenty of free services available over the Internet and through college and high school financial-aid officials that can do the same research.
"There's no need to pay someone," said Peter J. Keitel, the president of the state Higher Education Services Corp., the state agency that helps students pay for college by administering the Tuition Assistance Program and guaranteeing student loans.
"If you can use the Web, you can do what these firms will charge you to do," he said during a press conference Thursday at Canisius College to warn students how to avoid being stung by scholarship scams.
With college costs rising and students scrambling for ways to pay their tuition bills, a growing number of firms and Web sites -- some legitimate and some not -- are offering services for a fee that will help students find scholarships, loans and other forms of financial aid.
C. Adrienne Rhodes, the acting chairman and executive director of the state Consumer Protection Board, said her agency now is investigating several financial-planning firms and Internet sites that have allegedly filed false information on student financial loan applications, allowing the applicants to obtain more aid than they were eligible to receive.
The services typically portray the extra money as a private scholarship, but it actually is fraudulent aid that could be revoked when the incorrect information is uncovered. "When the truth comes out, it's the student who is left holding the bag -- an empty bag," she warned.
Rhodes warned against using one Web site, www.fafsa.com, which charges $50 to $190 to fill out a questionnaire that is almost identical to the federal financial-aid application form available for free from a government site, www.fafsa.ed.gov.
Another site, www.findcollegeaid.com, charges $189 to fill out an application like the financial-aid form, Rhodes said. "What kind of service is that?" she asked. "We think it's one to be avoided."
Rhodes and Keitel said students and parents should use caution and check out the reputations of aid and scholarship services that charge a fee.
The Federal Trade Commission's web site (www.ftc.gov/bcp/conline/edscams/scholarship/index.html) also has tips for avoiding scholarship scams.
"A site that's guaranteeing a scholarship is probably a scam. A site that's seeking increasing increments of money, that's probably a scam," Rhodes said. "Those are light bulbs that should go off."
Keitel also warned against using sites that require up-front payments or demand a credit card number.
Keitel said there are at least a dozen free scholarship search engines on the Internet. The HESC web site at www.hesc.com has information on how to apply for financial aid and scholarships, as well as a list of reputable scholarship search engines.
"If you don't have a computer at home, go to your local library and log on," he said.
Curt Gaume, Canisius' director of student financial aid, said college aid counselors can be a valuable source of help for parents and students. The state Financial Aid Administrators Association and HESC are offering a toll-free hotline at (800) 689-1669 from 4-8 p.m. through Feb. 16, manned by financial-aid officers who can answer questions about filling out forms.