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Avoid the most common back-to-school scams
Wednesday, August 01, 2018

With summer winding down, a new school year is just around the corner, promising new opportunities, experiences, and friendships. As many students are planning their return to school, scammers are working overtime to cheat students and their parents out of hard-earned savings. Fortunately, by learning about the most common scams targeting students before the school year starts, you can protect yourself and those you love from falling victim.

The high school diploma scam

For those of us who didn’t complete high school in a traditional setting, programs are available to finish coursework and earn a diploma. But scammers have identified ways of capitalizing on people seeking to earn their degrees later in life, and falling for one of these scams costs victims money and time and still results in no diploma.

If you or a loved one are going back to school to complete a high school degree, watch out for these red flags:

  1. You have to pay for a diploma. If you have to pay for your diploma, it is a scam. You may have to pay for classes and testing in a legitimate program, but -- once you earn it -- you will never have to pay for the diploma itself.
  2. You can earn a diploma in a day or two. If there are no classes or tests involved, and if you can earn your degree from “life experience” or previous work experience, it is a scam. A legitimate program will require that participants demonstrate excellence via coursework and exams.
  3. They claim to be affiliated with the federal government. Legitimate educational programs are affiliated with state governments.
  4. You can take an online test to earn your degree. High school equivalency tests are never administered online. All high school equivalency tests must be:
    1. Administered in person
    2. Proctored
    3. Closed-book
    4. Scheduled for specific dates and times

Going back to school to finish earning a high school degree is a worthwhile endeavor. However, to avoid getting scammed, always check in with your local community college to see what option is best for you. Your local community college can help you decide whether you want to take an equivalency test or a class from a legitimate operator.

The “student tax” scam

Imagine that while you are packing up your things to move into your new dorm, you receive an urgent phone call from the IRS. The “agent” informs you that you did not fill out your tax forms properly and you failed to pay your student tax, which helps pay for your public university. He notifies you that if you do not pay it immediately, you will not only be prevented from taking classes but that you will also face imprisonment!

While IRS imposter scams, like this scenario, can happen at any time of year, they tend to spike when scammers spot an opportunity to strike. Fortunately, knowing the telltale signs of an IRS imposter can help you steer clear of this scam.

  1. The IRS calls to inform you that you owe money. If you receive a phone call from the IRS about an issue the agency has not contacted you about before, hang up; it is a scam. The IRS will always reach out through the mail first.
  2. The caller is demanding payment through gift cards or a wire transfer. The IRS, along with any other government agency, will not accept gift cards as a form of payment. In addition, the IRS will never demand payment through a wire transfer.
  3. The caller demands that you pay taxes without giving you the opportunity to question or appeal the amount you owe. If you are immediately threatened with imprisonment, and you are not provided with an opportunity to appeal your tax bill, you are being scammed.

Scholarship scams

Finding ways to pay for school can be challenging. Unfortunately, fraudsters know this and have devised numerous scholarship scams to cheat students out of their tuition money. Fortunately, there are several steps you can take to protect yourself:

  1. Never pay to apply for government student loans or financial aid. If you are told to pay a fee to a company so that they can file a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form for you, don't do it. You can find all the help you need – for free – at If you still have questions, reach out to your university’s financial aid office.
  2. If a company guarantees that you will get a scholarship or a grant, you are getting scammed. While there are legitimate companies that can help students identify scholarships and grants that they qualify for, no one can ever guarantee that you will be awarded a scholarship.
  3. Never pay for a scholarship. If you are asked to pay fees or taxes in order to receive a scholarship, it is a scam.

If you believe that you have spotted a back-to-school scam, report it! You can file a complaint at via our secure online complaint form. We’ll share your complaint with our network of more than 90 law enforcement and consumer protection agency partners who can help put fraudsters behind bars.