DETROIT – Scammers already have hit the phones trying to trick cash-strapped college students into handing over money.
Ferris State University students in Michigan started receiving calls in mid-August from someone who claimed to be a college official from the campus in Big Rapids, Michigan.
The scare tactic: A threat that a student's classes will be dropped – unless the student pays off an outstanding debt that's owed to the university. Payments must be made immediately over the phone. But the university warns that it does not do such business over the phone. Instead, payments must be made in-person or online through the secure eBilling portal.
It used to be that the college checklist centered on making sure you packed the bath towels, the bedding, socks and underwear, plenty of school supplies and, oh yes, a surge protector. Now, you've got to stock up on scam alerts, too.
Con artists love to take advantage of anyone who is stressed out during the days leading up to the next semester. So, the scams need to be discussed each year as the kids go off to college.
I warn my 20-year-old son so frequently about these scams that he joked the other day that he texted his Social Security number to some guy who just called. I asked him if he didn't text his birthdate, too. My son replied: The guy already had my birthdate.
But the sophisticated scheming isn't a joke.
"You hear stories about more and more phone calls," said Anne Wohlfert, Michigan's acting deputy state treasurer.
And she noted that there are more cases of scammers taking advantage of students who are vulnerable.
"They can send you a text message on your cellphone, and they can make it look like it's official," Wohlfert said in a phone interview.
Fraudulent text messages might try to trick college students into thinking there's an easy way to reduce student loan payments – or they owe money for some reason now.
"And the kids believe this stuff," Wohlfert said.
One college student in Michigan received a message on her cellphone about a way to cut her college debt. She agreed to give some information via her cellphone and soon discovered the company was automatically withdrawing money out of her bank account every month for some fee, Wohlfert said.
Not a dime of that money was going to pay down the student loan.
Scammers might ask for credit-card information over the phone, debit-card info or request that students go out and put money on an iTunes gift card or another gift card and then read those numbers to them over the phone.
Often, scammers involved with a college-related scheme will ask for banking information from a student, particularly in some scams relating to loans and scholarships, according to the Michigan Department of Treasury's MI Student Aid Team.
Wohlfert, who has a stepson at Central Michigan University, says she regularly warns him about how fraudsters will target college students. She knows some parents do the same but too often the back-to-school scams aren't discussed.
The reality is, though, college students are under a great deal of financial pressure – and the scammers know it.
College costs have skyrocketed, and students must take on more loans to pay those tuition bills and fees.
So crooks are trying all sorts of scams – pretending to be from the Internal Revenue Service and demanding that a "Federal Student Tax" be paid via an iTunes card, promising phony deals on scholarships or student loans and offering too-good-to-be-true deals on apartments or part-time jobs.
"Back-to-school preparation is such a busy time for both parents and students. It's easy to let your guard down and become the perfect prey for scammers," said Laura Blankenship, director of community relations for the Better Business Bureau Serving Eastern Michigan and the Upper Peninsula.
"The tactics scammers use are getting more sophisticated every day."
Fake job offers, easy ways to lose money
Earlier this summer, a Michigan State University student complained to the BBB that someone supposedly from DMX Logistics emailed her – and texted her – saying she had been chosen to be someone's assistant. The young woman never applied for the job and didn't fall for the job "offer." She contacted the company, and no one by that name worked there. She never responded to the texts or email.
Consumer watchdogs note that some scams target those searching for jobs on career websites. In some cases, scammers are offering work-from-home jobs that try to get you to reship stolen merchandise or money orders.
The so-called employer could even demand personal information upfront, such as a Social Security number, date of birth and a bank account number.
The BBB notes you want to run from any job opportunity that asks for money upfront for training or supplies. Another sign of a scam: They're willing to hire you without even a basic phone interview. Or they somehow overpay you and then ask you to wire the money elsewhere. The check they sent is a bad one – and you'll be on the hook for any money you wire to the scammers.
Fake sites selling cheap textbooks
Before you buy any books online make sure you're dealing with a real company. Consumers have complained about losing $80 or more after giving credit-card information to fake sites that never send the books.
Some consumers have complained that they tried to rent books and never received them as well.
It's good idea to research some of these sites online before you send money. The BBB notes that you want to be careful when dealing with book sales on Craigslist, Offer Up, LetGo or any other third-party marketplace.
Fake back-to-school coupons, gift cards and deals
Retail chain Kohl's, for example, isn't putting a real $150 "Back-to-School" coupon on Facebook – expiration date Aug. 30.
Kohl's said it is actively working to have that phony offer taken down, noting that any website or group promoting that offer is not affiliated with Kohl's.
Some coupon scams require the consumer to take a “survey” that will include handing over email addresses, telephone numbers, dates of birth and sometimes credit-card numbers. Sometimes you're later asked to buy some other service or item in advance of receiving any valuable coupon or gift card. Remember, it can be easy for crooks to imitate the colors, logos and headers of trusted brands.
It's also possible you could download malware on your laptop if you click on some of these links. So don't fall for the $1,000 gift cards or unbeatable deals on an iPad for $19.99.
Fake offers to cut down college debt, find scholarships
Scammers might tell students they will make a direct deposit into the student's account – if the student agrees to pay upfront fees associated with that loan or scholarship via a gift card.
But once you pay that money, your money is gone and you're not going to see a loan.
Never hand over your credit-card number, information from your debit card or Social Security number when applying for assistance, paying a student loan or searching for a scholarship.
In Michigan, you can contact the MI Student Aid program at 888-447-2687. See www.michigan.gov/mistudentaid. The site also offers tools for scholarship searches, information on applying for federal student loans and even what to do if you're having trouble paying student loans.
Contact Susan Tompor: firstname.lastname@example.org or 313-222-8876. Follow Susan on Twitter @Tompor.