The internet has created business opportunities for many people, from selling collectibles on eBay to blogging for fun and profit. However, some enterprising scammers are making money charging people for information that’s available to anyone – for free. Here are some common scams and tips for avoiding them.
Financial Aid Scams
The Consumer Finance Protection Bureau (CFPB) has issued warnings about scams that charge a fee to help families apply for student loans. To apply, students must fill out a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form to determine their eligibility for student financial aid. (Notice the word “Free” here.) You can visit fafsa.ed.gov for the forms and instructions and tips for applying. Filing the FAFSA form is easy, so there is no reason to pay someone else to file it for you. Financial aid applications require a significant amount of financial information which is one more important reason to be extra cautious about how and where you provide these sensitive details.
There are several scams that claim to expedite passport applications and renewals. The U.S. Department of State warns that these private companies can’t get your passport to you any faster than if you apply in person at a U.S. passport agency. Some scams charge double or triple the price of a normal passport application, and some gather personal information that they may sell to third-party marketing agencies. Passport applications are available for free on the State Department’s Passport Forms page, and there is no fee for an appointment at a passport center. If you need your passport in a hurry, you can pay $60 for an expedited passport from the government’s Bureau of Consular Affairs, but paying additional money to a private application service buys you nothing.
Credit Report Scams
Another common scam is to charge consumers for the credit reports that are available to them for free, once a year from each of the three credit reporting bureaus. It is important to review your credit reports, and we recommend ordering one from each bureau four months apart so you can check your credit three times annually. (You can find out more at AnnualCreditReport.com.) However, scammers will pressure you pay a monthly fee to receive these reports, and the AARP newsletter reports that they make it very difficult to cancel those payments.
Do Your Homework
Do some research before signing up for any online service from a company you’ve never heard of. At best, they may be charging you for nothing and, at worst, they may be selling or stealing your personal information. If the offering involves government services, they should be available to you for free at a government website. If you’re not sure, visit the company’s website to see if it’s legitimate and if there’s a phone number you can call to check it out. Also, do an online search for reviews, complaints, or warnings about the organization. And even if it seems legit, weigh the cost of the service and the risk of giving out personal information versus doing the work yourself. Don’t help scammers help themselves to your money.