Applying to college? Don’t let scammers steal your money

·5-min read

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Scammers try to trick college applicants into sharing personal information (Photo: Getty)
Scammers try to trick college applicants into sharing personal information (Photo: Getty)

Applying to college is stressful. The essays, the financial aid forms and the flood of college emails – it’s all tough to navigate. And it’s a pain point that scammers know about and prey on. So before you open up that official-looking email from your favorite university – take a closer look. It could be a phishing scheme that’s trying to steal your personal information.

Scammers reel in victims via email

Phishing is something bad actors use to trick you into sharing passwords, credit card numbers, and other sensitive information. These can come as either fraudulent emails that look like they’re coming from a trusted institution, such as a college or university, or a fake website posing as a college institution, trying to squeeze personal information out of you. According to a recent report by the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center, Americans lost more than $57 million to phishing scams last year.

“Sometimes hackers want your credit card or other personal information, sometimes they want to put malware on your computer, tablet, or phone – or both,” a spokesperson for the Federal Trade Commission tells Yahoo Life. “Once they get your information, they might use it themselves or sell it. But either way, that’s something you want to avoid.”

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Rather than stressing about whether you’ve fallen victim to a phishing scheme, let technology figure it out for you. Software programs like Malwarebytes Premium not only scan your devices for suspicious files, but also remove any viruses and malware that might be hiding on your computer and warn you if you’re visiting a suspicious site, perhaps posing as a college or university website. As one of the top antivirus software tools on the market, Malwarebytes Premium delivers near-perfect detection rates with four layers of real-time protection operating around the clock.

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Be smart about applying for financial aid: protect yourself from scams (Photo: Getty)
Be smart about applying for financial aid: protect yourself from scams (Photo: Getty)

Paying for college the smart way

Filling out financial aid forms requires college applicants to submit a lot of personal information online such as tax filings and Social Security numbers. This is just the type of highly sensitive financial information that scammers are looking for. 

“They often tell a story to trick you into clicking on a link or opening an attachment. Things like: they spotted suspicious activity, need you to confirm your information, or say there’s a problem with your payment,” says the FTC. “They hope you’ll click on the fake email so they can steal your password, account number, or Social Security number. If they get that information, they could gain access to your email, bank, or other accounts.”

But top software programs like Malwarebytes Premium can add a much needed security layer that can protect you — and your child — from harmful malware on your computers that could lead to identity theft.

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The Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA form is now open for college applicants. It’s run by the U.S. Department of Education’s Federal Student Aid group and allows students to apply for a variety of federal and state financial aid to help cover college costs. About 20 million FAFSA submissions are processed each year. The private financial information that FAFSA collects is protected under laws such as The Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act and The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA. 

But even these government regulated programs can fall victim to hackers. In 2017, the IRS Data Retrieval Tool, which helps families import tax information to the FAFSA, suffered a data breach that exposed the personal information of nearly 100,000 taxpayers. Since then, the IRS tool has added new security features such as encryption and the ability to hide students’ Social Security numbers.

Some of the most common scams linked to the FAFSA include phishing emails that are disguised as official communications from the U.S. Department of Education. These emails might ask you to pay a fee to submit your FAFSA. But remember, the first “F” in FAFSA stands for free.” The fake emails may also promise exclusive scholarships or invite you to financial aid seminars. Another piece of advice, never share your FAFSA ID with anyone. It serves as your electronic signature and should be kept private. Bottom line, experts say if you’re being asked to send any personal financial information through email, it’s an immediate red flag.

Enthusiastic graduated daughter holding degree embracing mother in campus. Young female student graduate hugging her mother at graduation ceremony. Excited college student with the graduation gown and hat holding diploma and hug the parent at campus.
Enthusiastic graduated daughter holding degree embracing mother in campus. Young female student graduate hugging her mother at graduation ceremony. Excited college student with the graduation gown and hat holding diploma and hug the parent at campus.

Smaller does not mean safer

Beyond the big federal financial aid programs, there are countless private scholarships and loan programs out there. But researchers say these offerings can be even more vulnerable to phishing scams due to the lack of legal protections in place.

Going to college is expensive. But taking the time to educate yourself before filling out all of those forms could protect you from scams and ensure that you’re not forking out more money than you already are.

Try Malwarebytes Premium for a free 30-day trial as you’re filling out college forms and applications, and then it’s just $4.99 a month.

Shop it: Malwarebytes, free 30-day trial, then just $4.99 a month

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