College scams

The next few weeks are crunch time for the class of 2026, and hackers are taking notice. 

Acceptance and rejection letters have been sent, offers of admittance have to be accepted or rejected by May 1, and then comes the waitlist period, which can extend to just before classes start in the Fall.  

Additionally, rising freshmen are receiving an avalanche of letters about sealing the deal on offers, financial aid, scholarships and other information. For the privacy-minded out there, this isn’t a big deal. But then there’s the fact that the Class of 2026 is not super privacy-minded, and many of that cohort are posting about the process on their social media accounts. 

This situation creates fertile ground for scammers to take advantage. Hackers like young adults, because they have unused credit and are easy to target. Add to that the distraction of heading off to college (mixed with panic), and it’s go time for scams. 

Information from schools matters (dorms, meal plans, clubs, sports), and there is often the need to provide financial information–which exposes parents, so the only question is: How will the hackers approach the problem set since the scams are pretty much all the same?

Chances are good, scammers will send emails with trigger words or phrases. These emails may be about topics we know have been used in the past, or new ones. The topics may include waitlist status, dorm assignments, miss acceptance information, loss of offer of acceptance and others. The list is only limited to the imagination of the hackers. 

It’s important to note that the threat isn’t hypothetical: for the past several years, phishing campaigns have targeted applicants with the subject line “ACTION REQUIRED: FAFSA INFO,” as an attempt to lure recipients to click malware links or to provide personal information used for identity theft. 

Fraudulent scholarships are another popular avenue, where applicants are promised money for school expenses in exchange for a modest fee. The potential for scams is nearly limitless.

How to protect yourself:

  • Hit Pause: The first and most important way to avoid a scam is to pause for a moment before clicking any links or providing information. Scams of all kinds typically depend on their targets to be too distracted or agitated to notice red flags.
  • Check the URL or sender email address: If you’re on a website, or receive an email, double check the domain it’s coming from. Most colleges have a .edu domain name, and communications coming from FAFSA will be from a .gov address. These domain suffixes are restricted to accredited post-secondary institutions and Federal government agencies. View any communication coming from a .com/.net/.org or other domain name suffix as suspect.
  • Go to the source: If you receive a notification from a college or student loan agency, go to your College Board account or directly to their website and look for a means of getting in contact rather than calling a number or clicking a link within an email. It’s easy for scammers to create authentic-seeming emails and websites cloned from legitimate ones.
  • Don’t overshare on social media: Sharing information on public forums about where you’re applying makes it easy for scammers to create tailor-made phishing emails. Keep your accounts private and don’t provide too much information that could be used to target you.
  • Beware “professional” services claiming to help with the process: Several scam operations claim to help with the financial aid application process, or to have an inside track to get off of waitlists for an upfront fee. Don’t take the bait.