College students and families should be cautious when approached by individuals offering assistance with the state financial aid application process, warns the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency. As the Aug. 1 and Aug. 15 deadlines for the state grant program approach, the agency has seen a rise in scams.
PHEAA spokesperson Keith New said the agency has received multiple reports of scam activity in the past three weeks, including calls to students from individuals impersonating PHEAA representatives, offering application assistance for a fee.
The application — comprising the Free Application for Federal Student Aid and a State Grant Form — is free, and plenty of resources are available online to guide applicants through the process, Mr. New said. Scammers often promise applicants an award, but students should be aware that there is no guarantee, he said. Aid is determined based on need.
Mr. New said this sort of spike in scam activity is not unusual. An increase in scams typically accompanies financial aid application cycles, including the FAFSA deadlines, which fall between January and March, and the August state grant deadlines, he said.
“The financial aid process can seem daunting to some families, and that’s when you have unscrupulous individuals preying on them,” he said.
Some of these offers are outright scams, others are just disingenuous, Mr. New said.
Families who are struggling financially and facing the pressure of an impending deadline may be tempted to pay a consultant to complete the application for them, he said.
“Is that a scam? By the letter of the law, no,” he said.“But are Pennsylvania families being taken advantage of? Yes.”
PHEAA works with universities to warn students and their families about these scams.
The Community College of Allegheny County regularly hosts financial aid workshops and points students to free resources regarding the application process, public relations director Elizabeth Johnston said. To guard against identity theft, students are also advised to keep personal information secure, she said.
PHEAA receives around 500,000 applications for the state grant program annually, awarding approximately 190,000.
Stephanie McFeeters: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-2533. On Twitter: @mcfeeters.