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Susan Bach column: Scholarship scams rise as application deadlines near

7:43 PM, Feb. 20, 2013  |  Comments
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If you (or your child) will be attending college this fall, chances are you are busy completing your financial aid forms.

For most public universities and private colleges in Wisconsin, the priority deadline to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid for the fall is March 15. However, some have a March 1 deadline.

No doubt you've also received letters and phone calls, or seen advertisements on TV and radio, for financial aid scholarship companies. These companies usually offer lists of possible financial aid sources, which could include grants from government agencies or foundations and scholarships. Some of these companies charge a fee, ranging from $20 to several hundred dollars.

Here's your first lesson: Never pay for something that you can get for free. There are plenty of no-cost resources available to find college grants and scholarships . Your first stop should be to your high school guidance counselors. Typically, organizations offering scholarships will send information directly to them. Also, your future college or university likely offers its own scholarships.

Next, do an online search at one of the following free sites: bigfuture.org, zinch.com, cappex.com, fastaid.com or studentaid.gov. Finally, check local sources including churches, businesses and civic organizations, because many also offer scholarships. The Wisconsin Better Business Bureau also offers two $2,500 scholarships. Go to www.wisconsin.bbb.org/scholarship for more information.

Consumers should be careful of scams. The most common is a seminar scam, inviting the recipient to a free financial aid seminar, which simply is a high-pressure sales pitch. Also, be wary if a company "guarantees a scholarship or your money back." Grants or scholarships are awarded on basis of performance or qualifications.

Beware of companies that tout information no one else could provide you. Most scholarship lists are public information, and while there are legitimate companies who compile lists you should know that none of that information is limited to just you. Also, be skeptical of claims by companies that they'll do all of the work for you. There's no way around it. You must apply for scholarships or grants yourself.

Some scam companies may claim that you're a finalist for a scholarship or grant that you've never applied for. Don't believe it. You've got to go looking for scholarship or grant money; it's not going to find you.

And don't forget to complete your FAFSA form at fafsa.gov yourself.

Paying someone to complete FAFSA forms or apply for a scholarship doesn't increase your chances of winning an award. It will, however, lighten your wallet.

- Susan Bach is regional director of the Better Business Bureau for Northeast Wisconsin. She can be reached at sbach@wisconsin.bbb.org or 920-734-4352.

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