Spring has arrived, and for high-school students and their parents, life can't get much busier as graduation and post-graduation plans start to take shape.
It's also a busy season for those who reach out to students with offers to hunt on their behalf for a variety of scholarships in exchange for a fee.
Educators advise families to tread carefully when dealing with such companies and to apply the age-old axiom, "If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is."
Opportunists have proliferated during the Internet age, said Tom Bozikis, vice president of the Midwest's Tri-State Better Business Bureau.
Typically, a potential scammer will promise that, for a cost, a student's name will be put in the running for a lengthy list of financial aid awards. The pitch often will come with a vow that the fee will later be refunded, but often, that promise comes with strings attached.
Bozikis and local educators say students and parents should be skeptical of any organization that charges a fee, regardless of whatever promise or conditions accompany it.
They say that those who promise to, for a cost, fill out a Free Application for Student Financial Aid (commonly called the FAFSA) on behalf of a student shouldn't be trusted, either.
The first "F" in FAFSA, after all, stands for free, said Channelle Ragland, director of the Southwest Indiana College Access Network.
According to the College Board, scammers often advise students that millions of dollars worth of private scholarship aid go unused each year. Actually, most financial aid opportunities come from the government or individual higher-education institutions, and privately financed scholarship opportunities usually are for specific types of applicants and not the general population.
Some other red flags:
-- Organizations that claim to be providing a student or family with information that can't be found anywhere else. Information about scholarship opportunities is readily available from high-school guidance offices and elsewhere, according to high-school counselor Amanda Reynolds. "Everything they promise (for a cost), we can give for free," Reynolds said.
-- Anyone who solicits credit card or bank account information.
-- Those who promise that, in exchange for the fee, "We'll do all the work" to search for a scholarship for a student. Ragland said that is never the case -- students must apply for financial aid on their own. "It just takes a little elbow grease, but it is worth the effort," Ragland said.
-- Guarantees of success. No one controls the decisions of judges to award scholarships, educators say.
-- Official-sounding names or endorsements, because those often do not automatically mean legitimacy.
Besides high-school guidance offices and individual colleges and universities, educators say there are other legitimate ways to obtain scholarship information.
For more information: www.collegeboard.com.