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Spotting Scholarship Scams

Always be extremely wary of any unsolicited scholarship offers, especially the ones that you've never heard about before. Think about it. Unless you have perfect SAT scores, you lettered in varsity track, basketball, and football, scored 100 percent in all your final high school courses, and were named state valedictorian, why would a scholarship foundation seek you out? The answer is: It wouldn't. Ah, but scam operators will. You, and thousands like you, are a potential source of revenue for scholarship scam operators!

With the exception of government-based loans and grants, few third-party scholarship funds are regulated, and that means anyone can send you an envelope full of promises or make a phone call full of guarantees. Students who spend hard-earned money for the chance to win a scholarship, grant, or low-cost loan are tossing their money down the proverbial drain.

One of the best ways you can tell that a scholarship offer is bogus is when it contains many promises. Legitimate organizations don't promise or guarantee anything, other than the honest, straightforward way that the award process works. Real organizations give you realistic deadlines, tell you whether or not they will respond to your application if you don't win, provide clear criteria for winning, and almost exclusively do not require an entry fee.

No legitimate organization will promise you that you'll win — these organizations don't even make it clear that you're likely to win. If an organization is giving away free money, why would it have to go to the trouble to track down someone like you who is willing to receive it? Millions of students will track them down. Scholarship services can't guarantee results, either, because it would be illegal for them to have any influence over the awards process. If an organization doesn't choose its award recipients based solely on its stated criteria (such as high marks), it's guilty of fraud and can be indicted on criminal charges and sued privately. Legitimate organizations don't want to take those kinds of risks.

Whether they contact you through mail, by telephone or via the Internet, scholarship scammers generally make one or more of these false promises:

  • "Our results are guaranteed." In fact, no one can guarantee that you'll get a scholarship. Nobody. Be especially wary when a third-party, such as a scholarship service, says that it can guarantee the actions of another (usually real) philanthropic organization.
  • "Our offer is exclusive, and awarded to you because you're in the top five percentile (or whatever) of all students statewide." Do some soul-searching. Despite what your proud grandparents may think, ask yourself whether you're really so special that you warrant the attention of people you've never heard about before? And, for that matter, how could they possibly have heard about you unless your grades or achievements are the subject of major press coverage?
  • "Our service will reduce the costs of getting scholarships." Scholarships don't cost anything, except, of course, the thousands of hours it takes you to develop the academic, artistic, athletic, or public-speaking skills for which real scholarships are awarded. If a scholarship (or another unsolicited offer) costs you money, it's most likely a scam.
  • "We do all the work for you." Scholarships are work, but most real scholarship applications consist of a form, plus some supporting material, such as an essay (writing that award-winning essay for you would be fraud by the third party), a performance video (is the third party going to play the piano or score that winning touchdown for you?), or other impressive accomplishment (that must be accomplished by you).
  • "We're making you this time-limited offer over the phone." Legitimate scholarships are pretty much always offered through the mail; you may receive telephone notification that an offer is on the way, especially when you interact personally with the awards committee, but you always receive follow-up correspondence by mail. Besides, you always have a reasonable amount of time to accept an offer — sometimes months. If you're pressured in any way, hang up the phone.

When it comes to scholarships, here's a simple rule that you can follow to avoid getting burned: If it seems too good to be true, it probably is!

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