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Online Scams

6 back-to-school scams and how to avoid them

Students get ready to board a school bus.

June 27, 2022

You might find plenty to worry about when your children return to school, whether they’re heading to elementary school, high school, or college. And one thing worth fretting over? Back-to-school online scams.

Plenty of cybercriminals are eager to prey on students as they return to their classrooms and dorms. And these scammers are relying on everything from pushing fake “student taxes” to offering fake student-loan relief to separate students from their dollars and personal information.

Want to avoid these scams and help your children stay safe from cybercriminals? The key is to understand the most common online scams that students face and the steps necessary to avoid falling victim to them.

Here are some of the more common back-to-school scams, how they work, and how students and parents can help thwart the scammers behind them.

1. Shopping scams

Going back to school can be expensive, what with all the books, clothes, and tech supplies parents and students must buy. It’s not surprising that both students and parents would be hunting for bargain prices on these items.

Scammers know this and try to take advantage of it.

Some scammers set up phony websites offering low-cost school supplies. But when consumers enter their credit card information and complete their purchases, the items they order never arrive. The scammers, though, now have their credit card information and can use it to rack up unauthorized purchases.

Others send phishing emails to students and parents saying that they missed a delivery of school supplies. These emails request that the recipients click on a link to reschedule this delivery. That link either floods victims’ computers with malware or sends them to fake websites that request their personal and payment information.

When consumers provide their address, bank account information, or credit card numbers, they are sending this information directly to scammers who could use it to drain their bank accounts or rack up purchases on their credit cards.

How to help avoid shopping scams

When buying supplies online, only visit the websites of reputable brands whose names you recognize. And if you are visiting an unknown brand online, be wary if this company is offering supplies at far lower prices than any competitors. That is often the sign of a scam.

And if you get one of those missed-delivery emails? Never open a link in it. Instead, call the company that supposedly sent the message to ask if you really did miss a delivery. 

2. The back-to-school shopping spree

You might find an email in your mailbox claiming that you've won a free back-to-school shopping spree. Or maybe your phone is pinged with a text claiming the same thing. All you need to do is click on the website address included in the text or email message. And once you get to that webpage? You just need to provide your own email address to receive all the information you need for that free shopping spree.

The problem? Instead of getting that shopping spree, you're bombarded with emails, texts, and robo-calls from an endless stream of marketers. There is no real shopping spree. Instead, by sending your email you've accidentally agreed to receive solicitations from a slew of marketing companies. And all those texts and emails get annoying quickly.

How to help avoid the shopping-spree scam

Free shopping sprees are rare. So don't expect to actually win one. If you do receive an email or text claiming you've won such a spree, search online for the company sending the message and the deal it is offering. You'll probably find that the deal isn't legitimate or that the company offering it is a spammer. And if you don't find any information about the offer? Delete that text or email. It's certainly a marketing scam.

3. The student tax

The student tax scam is a popular one for students, or the parents of students, who are heading to college in the fall. The student or parent receives an email, text, or phone call from someone claiming to be from the IRS. This message says that the student never paid his or her student tax.

If students, or their parents, don’t pay up? The students won’t be able to attend classes during the upcoming semester. Even worse, they might face jail time.

The scam ends when the “IRS agent” convinces victims to wire them money or pay their student tax with a gift card. Other scammers might request victims’ bank account or credit card information so that the IRS can withdraw funds directly or use their credit cards to pay off this tax.

Of course, there is no such thing as a student tax. It doesn’t exist. Victims who send money are out whatever dollars they wired. And those that provided financial information will find unauthorized charges on their credit cards or a bank account drained of funds.

How to help avoid the student-tax scam

If you remember that the student tax doesn’t exist, you’ll avoid falling prey to this scam. Remember, too, that the IRS will never make an initial contact with you by phone, email, or text. Instead, the agency will send a letter. If you are worried that you are late on tax payments, contact the IRS directly for help. 

4. Scholarship scams

School can be expensive, especially if you or your children attend private schools or are enrolled in college. That’s why scholarship dollars are so enticing.

Scammers are aware of this. It’s why scholarship scams are so popular.

In one type of scholarship scam, the cybercriminals ask for an application fee. That fee might not be large — maybe just $25 or $35 — but if scammers get enough people to pay this fee? The profits can add up. The scammers then either award very few or no scholarships. Remember, legitimate scholarships don't require that students pay to apply.

You might also receive an email or text saying that you've won a scholarship, even if you don't remember applying. But before you can collect your thousands of dollars in free money, you must pay a redemption or disbursement fee. Again, this is a scam: Legitimate scholarships don't require you to pay any fee to receive your money.

Some scammers offer fake scholarship search services. They'll send you a text or email saying that they'll find scholarship offers for you, for a fee. And if you don't earn one of these scholarships? They'll refund your money. This is another scam: Once you send your money, these "search companies" will typically disappear. If they don't, and you don't qualify for a scholarship, they might make it incredibly difficult to qualify for a refund.

How to help avoid the scholarship scam

First, remember that no legitimate scholarship provider will require you to pay a fee to apply or collect your dollars. And if you don't remember applying for a scholarship that you've somehow still won? That's a sure sign of a scam. Scholarship providers don't randomly contact students or parents offering prize money. You must formally apply to win those scholarship dollars.

5. Student loan forgiveness scam

Scammers aren't above preying on the fears that both students and parents have when it comes to the high cost of tuition. That’s why student loan scams are so common. 

In these scams, fraudsters send emails or texts to students or parents saying that they can reduce or erase the student loan debt that they owe. This, of course, is not true: The scammers might ask for a fee. Once the victims wire these criminals the funds, the scammers disappear, and the victims' student loan debt remains.

Others might ask for the personal or financial information of victims to start the loan-forgiveness process. Again, the scammers simply use this information to take out loans or credit cards in the victims' names, access their bank accounts, or run up fraudulent charges on their credit cards.

How to help avoid the student-loan-forgiveness scam

Never work with a private company that says it can reduce or eliminate your student loan debt. If you are struggling with too much debt, instead call your loan provider directly. You might be able to work out a new payment plan or terms that make your monthly payment more affordable.

And never pay a fee for debt relief. Legitimate companies don't charge for such a service.

6. College test prep scams

High school students ready to apply for college often spend a good chunk of their junior years studying for and taking the SAT and ACT tests. High scores on these tests can help them land a spot at their dream universities.

Scammers, though, can make big money during college-test season. Fraudsters send emails or texts, or make phone calls, to the parents of students preparing for these tests, claiming that their children ordered test-prep materials. They then ask these parents for their credit card numbers so that they can process payment for the materials.

The victims’ children, though, never did order these materials. And once the criminals have this information, they are free to rack up unauthorized charges on the victims' credit cards.

How to help avoid the test-prep scam

Never give your credit card information to a company that calls, texts, or emails you. If you think the request might be legitimate, call the company at its customer service number and ask if any order for test-prep materials is legitimate. Research any company claiming to be a test-prep company: Enter the company's name and the word "scam" or "complaint" in a search engine to see if there are any reports of fraudulent behavior.

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