You get to the website on securing financial aid for education, and in rather small print it advises, “We are not affiliated with the Department of Education.”
However, in bold, bright letters, the site advises, “Maine Residents: State programs award on a first-come, first served basis. File immediately to avoid losing aid.” You can get help, it goes on, “for as little as $79.99.”
While websites such as this one aren’t scams, there are a number of free alternatives. As the website also indicates (in really small type), “The FAFSA [Free Application For Federal Student Aid] can be filed for free, without professional assistance at www.fafsa.ed.gov.”
So, what’s going on here? The for-profit website is one of many that promise “professional advisors” will provide “personal advice, consultation and review.” Some claim the process is so confusing that mere mortals lacking special training risk losing the maximum financial aid they might otherwise receive.
The U.S. Department of Education maintains the website that explains FAFSA ( http://www.fafsa.ed.gov/). It notes that thousands of consumers have complained about services that seemed more interested in collecting fees than in helping prospective students get financial aid.
These sites are not considered scams, unless the company promises something that it does not deliver. Usually, pitches are carefully worded to avoid making impossible claims. People may end up at these websites by guessing at site names; the for-profit folks have purchased site names that are likely guesses for just that reason.
Instead of paying for financial aid advice, the education department suggests talking with high school counselors, financial aid administrators at colleges and universities and the Federal Student Aid Information Center ( https://studentaid.ed.gov/contact). Most high school counselors welcome past as well as present students. Help from any of these sources is free, and the advice is worth noting.
The most important suggestion is to apply early. There’s one big pot of federal money to go around, and early applicants who qualify share that money. Waiting until the March deadline lowers your chances and shortens the time you have to correct any errors.
As with income tax filings, the most common error is forgetting to sign your application. You need a PIN, a four-digit number that becomes your electronic signature. Without that PIN, your application can’t be processed.
The Finance Authority of Maine helps teens all over Maine understand financial aid. Visit www.famemaine.com and read about College Goal Maine. There’s a series of free meetings around the state to provide individualized help in filing FAFSA, and there’s a virtual lab for those who can’t make an in-person meeting.
The state’s Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection recently published the Downeaster Common Sense Guide to Student Loans. Visit online at www.credit.maine.gov and click on “Consumer guides.” The booklet is also available in print by writing Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection, 35 State House Station, Augusta ME 04333-0035 or by calling 1-800-332-8529.
When searching online, watch out for claims that sound too good to be real. A “guarantee” of “at least $5,500” is worthless, since most students qualify for at least that much in unsubsidized loans. Be very wary of promises like, “I can guarantee aid if you give me your bank account number and a small fee.” Such claims are always scams.
Consumer Forum is a collaboration of the Bangor Daily News and Northeast CONTACT, Maine’s all-volunteer, nonprofit consumer organization. For assistance with consumer-related issues, including consumer fraud and identity theft, or for information, write Consumer Forum, P.O. Box 486, Brewer 04412, visit http://necontact.wordpress.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
byline: Russ Van Arsdale, Executive Director, Northeast CONTACT