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Editorial: Watch out for aid, gift scams

As another school term's on the way, it's not surprising scam artists are poised and ready to take advantage of vulnerable youth, besides naïve others.

Family budgets are tight and the cost of college is outpacing inflation, so students and their families are anxious to find scholarships and other awards to help them pay for higher education. The Wisconsin Better Business Bureau (BBB) cautions students and parents alike to be wary of websites, seminars or other schemes promising to find scholarships, grants or financial aid packages for a fee.

These companies may promise a money-back guarantee, but they set so many conditions it's almost impossible to get a refund, according to the BBB. Others tell students they've been selected as finalists, but they must pay a fee to be eligible for the award.

In some cases, companies promise to process paperwork to make a student eligible for the aid for a fee. However, the standard application for financial aid is most often the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which students and their parents can complete themselves, at no cost. More information is available online at FAFSA or by calling 1-800-4-FED-AID.

High school guidance counselors can often help students search for information on scholarships based on their talents, academic achievements, essay contests or other merit-based aid, the BBB says. Information on many awards is available free online or at public and school libraries. Legitimate companies can help students find aid, but they will never promise results.

The BBB offers the following tips:

--Don't be rushed into paying for help at a seminar.

--Be cautious if a representative urges "buy now to avoid losing an opportunity."

--Be wary if a company is reluctant to answer any questions about its service or the process. If the business or seminar representative is evasive, walk away.

--Ask a guidance counselor or college financial aid office whether they have experience with the prospective company.

--Be skeptical of glowing success stories touted on websites or at seminars. Ask instead for the names of families in the community who have used the service in the last year. Talk with them directly about their experience with the firm.

--Ask about fees associated with a professional financial aid search and find out if the business provides refunds. Get all information in writing, but understand dishonest companies may refuse to provide refunds despite stated policies.

--Beware of letters or e-mails saying the recipient has been selected to receive a scholarship for a contest never entered.

--Investigate any company in consideration for using to help find aid. Check the company's BBB Business Review by calling 1-800-273-1002.

Among other scammers, "Rachel" is now part of an e-mail phishing scam, the state's Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP) reports.

Anyone receiving an e-mail from "Rachel, Customer Service, Employee Benefits Center, LLC," informing them they've been issued a free $1,000 Visa gift card on behalf of a local business, should be aware it's a scam and take no action with the e-mail.

Consumers nationwide have received these e-mails, with each e-mail claiming to offer the gift cards on behalf of a local company, charity or government agency. The e-mails appear official and ask recipients to visit a website to claim the card.

If a recipient falls for the bait and visits the website, he or she will be asked for a number of personal details. It's also possible the website may attempt to load malicious software (known as "malware") onto the victim's computer.

Regardless of the company whose name is used, DATCP indicates the scam e-mails include the same content. The subject line of the e-mail will typically read "Recipient's Name" and a thank you from the local company name.

The body of the e-mail will include:

--The recipient's first and last name, and an "issuing branch" in the city or state where the recipient lives;

--A "valid until" date for the card (often listed as 8/2015);

--A website address where the recipient can "claim the card and have it shipped to the address of choosing";

--A 48-hour deadline to make victims react more quickly to the "offer";

--A signature from "Rachel, Customer Service, Employee Benefits Center, LLC."

If receiving this e-mail, don't visit the listed website, open any links or attachments, respond to the sender or take any other action with the solicitation. Update anti-virus software to ensure the computer can recognize any recent malware attacks.

For more information or to file a complaint, visit DATCP, or send an e-mail to

DATCP or call 1-800-422-7128.