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Consumer Alert: The New York State Division of Consumer Protection Issues Scam Warning to All Postsecondary Students as They Head Back to Campus

In the coming weeks, many students will be heading to college, vocational, or graduate school programs. New York State is home to nearly 300 higher education institutions– the second highest in the nation. Incoming students have many decisions to make at the start of the academic year and while making choices independently is exciting, dealing with new situations can be challenging. Whether living away from home for the first time, navigating financial aid, or building credit, students have ample opportunities to get scammed. The NYS Division of Consumer Protection (DCP) provides guidance on how to start this new academic year safely with targeted scam prevention and safety tips that can help during this transition.

“The best way for college students to avoid textbook, scholarship or rental scams is to be informed. This is an exciting time as students, often on their own for the first time, learn how to balance their freedom and responsibilities. This new independence makes them targets for scammers,” said Secretary of State Robert J. Rodriguez, who oversees the Department of State and its Division of Consumer Protection. “The goal of the Division of Consumer Protection is to educate students and arm them with knowledge to protect themselves against identity theft, scams and other safety prevention tips.”   

SCAM PREVENTION TIPS FOR HIGHER EDUCATION STUDENTS:

Protect Yourself from Common Scams Targeting Students:

  • Fake Scholarships, Grants or Loans: The required paperwork to apply for financial aid is the FAFSA form and it’s completely free. Visit FAFSA’s government’s website directly and don’t believe anyone who offers guarantees or pre-approvals for loans or grants.
     
  • Unpaid Tuition Scam: Ignore calls claiming that you’ll be dropped from all classes unless you pay tuition immediately over the phone. Always call the school bursar’s office directly to verify your account status. Schools generally send an invoice to alert students of account status.
     
  • Fake Employment or Internship Offers: Never pay an upfront fee to move forward in an interview process or provide too much personal information, such as your SSN, during the application or interview process.
     
  • Buying Books Online: Scam artists set up fake websites and offer great deals on expensive textbooks only to never deliver the textbooks leaving the student out of cash and with no textbook. Learn how to identify fake websites listings for textbooks and supplies.  Before you buy, do your research, and confirm it’s a reputable source. Pay attention to contact information and return policies. Legitimate sites provide a physical address and working phone number in the contact section.
     
  • Roommate/Rental Scam: Scammers pose as an individual selling or renting a property or as someone on behalf of a property owner. Potential renters are then solicited for money in exchange for promises that the homes will be shown to them or rented to them upon completion of payment. The scam is realized when there is no home for sale, or the property is already occupied.
     
  • Credit Cards: If applying for a credit card for the first time, do your own research. Students are often targeted with misleading credit card offers that could be a veiled attempt at identity theft or may charge exorbitant annual fees and interest rates.

Protect Yourself from Identity theft:

  • Understand the consequences. Higher education students are at great risk of identity theft, but you can minimize these risks by protecting yourself and keeping your information private. It’s important that you understand the consequences of identity theft. Criminals can use your personal information to build a fake identity and open new accounts or loans under your name. Restoring credit and correcting false information can be a costly and lengthy process so it’s best to prevent it before it happens.
     
  • Keep all personal identifiable information private. Whether it’s in a dorm room, online, or in any social situation, keep all information and documents containing personal information private and securely guarded. Personally identifiable information is information that, when used alone or with other relevant data, can identify a person.
     
    • Remember to always keep a close hold on your social security number (SSN) and ask why it’s needed before deciding to share it. Oftentimes organizations include the SSN request as a formality, and it may not be mandatory. Ask if you can use a different kind of identifier.
       
    • Personal documents, checkbooks, credit card statements and other personal papers should be always locked securely.
       
    • When searching for and applying for student loans or other applications for financial aid, never share personal information via the phone or internet unless you have initiated contact.
       
    • Shred pre-approved credit card offers and bills before disposing of them.
       
  • Practice Online Safety.
     
    • Social media is a great place to connect with friends or catch up with the latest viral trend but remember to save some secrets for yourself. Social media posts often reveal sensitive information unintentionally. Cybercriminals look for content that can reveal answers to security questions used to reset passwords, making accounts vulnerable to identity theft. 
       
    • Avoid downloading free music, games, or apps.  Free downloads come with a price – identity theft. Often the free apps, music and games are tainted with keystroke logging malware.
       
    • Avoid using public WIFI/computer to shop online or pay bills.
       
    • Monitor privacy settings on all online accounts.
       
    • Before you get rid of your old laptop or smartphone, protect your data so it doesn’t end up in the hands of an identity thief. For tips on how to protect your data before getting rid of your devices, please see information from this Federal Trade Commission article.
       
    • For more tips on how to stay safe online, please see information from this January 2020 consumer Alert.

SAFETY TIPS AT SCHOOL:

College Dormitory Safety

For those living on campus this fall, there are safety precautions to keep in mind, especially for first-time residential students. Fires are one of the biggest hazards; the National Fire Protection Association reports that fire departments responded to over 3,000 fires at dormitories, sororities, fraternities, and other related structures from 2015-2019. Be sure to check your dormitory for fire hazards and more, and have the following information handy:

  • Locate the smoke and carbon monoxide alarms within your dorm or off-campus housing. Verify or obtain assurances that all alarms are in proper working order. Participate in any needed safety demonstrations on campus.
     
  • Check for working sprinkler systems and fire extinguishers. Most at risk are those staying in off-campus housing, where these systems are not regulated by the university.
     
  • Locate the nearest emergency exits. Make note of where to go if there is an emergency.
     
  • Never overload outlets with too many demands for power to prevent fires. Students with laptops, televisions, mini-refrigerators, and more can overload the outlet and spark a fire.
     
  • Review the emergency plan in case of fire or a carbon monoxide leaks. Ensure all those residing in the room know where to meet and what to do if there is an emergency. Remember to call 911 in case of any emergency and follow safety protocol.

The New York State Division of Consumer Protection provides voluntary mediation between a consumer and a business when a consumer has been unsuccessful at reaching a resolution on their own. The Consumer Assistance Helpline 1-800-697-1220 is available Monday to Friday from 8:30 AM to 4:30 PM, excluding State Holidays, and consumer complaints can be filed at any time at www.dos.ny.gov/consumerprotectionFor more consumer protection tips, follow the Division on social media at Twitter: @NYSConsumer and Facebook: www.facebook.com/nysconsumer.