Steer Clear of ID Theft When Applying for Scholarships Online

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Make sure your personal information is safe when applying for scholarships online.

Make sure your personal information is safe when applying for scholarships online.

Ever been in the middle of an application and thought to yourself, “What’s going to happen to my information?” You might jot down your name, address, phone number, e-mail address and even your social security number without thinking about it. But with identity theft on the rise, it’s important to protect and safeguard your personal information, including when you apply for scholarships and financial aid.

Understand the Privacy Policy

If you are concerned about how a scholarship provider will use your information, check the sponsor’s web site for a privacy policy. Look for specific details under such headings as “Information Use,” “Information Collection” or “Information Sharing.” If you don’t understand the privacy policy, ask the sponsor or someone you trust about what it means.

Carefully consider the consequences when applying for a scholarship that requires disclosure of your qualifications or other personal attributes you may wish to keep private (e.g., a scholarship for homosexual students). Many sponsors want to spread awareness about their cause, which means they may require permission to use your name and other identifying information when promoting the winners of the scholarship. If you have questions about how this type of information will be used, ask the sponsor and check over your privacy rights before you apply.

Do Your Homework and Trust Your Gut

Still doubt the legitimacy of a scholarship? Make sure you’re aware of common signs of scholarship scams.

For instance, no scholarship should ever charge a fee or require credit card or bank account numbers.

Check with your local Better Business Bureau office to see if any complaints have been filed against the organization. You can also check a domain name registration site such as Register.com, where you can look up contact information like address and phone number with the sponsor’s Web address. If you write to the e-mail address or contact information provided, and you don’t get a response or your message is returned, think twice about applying.

A big part of side-stepping scams is listening to your instincts. “If it feels wrong, if an organization asks for your social security number or bank account information, ask for help,” says Amy Weinstein, executive director of the National Scholarship Providers Association (NSPA). “Be skeptical and ask for help before you proceed.” If you suspect that you’ve been taken in by a scam, check here for what to do.

Social Security Numbers: Handle With Care

Because of the risk of identity theft, your social security number (SSN) is an especially sensitive piece of information. If a sponsor asks for your SSN, contact them to inquire why they need it. If you don’t get a response or you’re not satisfied with the response, don’t apply.

If you feel uncomfortable submitting your SSN, leave the space blank or enter 000-00-0000. (Remember to verify first whether you will be disqualified if you don’t include your SSN.) Check the privacy policy to see if SSN privacy is specifically mentioned. Fortunately, many sponsors appear to be moving away from asking for social security numbers because of the security risk, says Weinstein.

Indeed, many scholarship providers take significant measures to protect students’ privacy. “[Student privacy] is a huge responsibility,” says Kevin Byrne, director of the Dell Scholars Program. “We’re constantly looking at enhancements to technology and also administrative and day-to-day practices to minimize exposure of the risk.” To protect students, the Dell Program uses data encryption, password protection and masks social security numbers. “We have session time outs just in case [students] are on a shared computer at a library or school,” he says, “and we have procedures in place to take data offline, so that it’s not exposed.”

Feel Secure With the FAFSA

Your SSN is required when filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). “Submitting the information online via fafsa.ed.gov is as safe as online banking, and probably safer than sending it through the U.S. Postal Service,” writes FinAid publisher Mark Kantrowitz via e-mail. “Just be sure to shut down the Web browser after you’re done and to clear the cache, so that a roommate can’t look at the information.”

The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) protects your information when you submit it to a college (provided your school receives federal funding). The law safeguards the information on your completed FAFSA, SAR and other financial aid forms. “No school is going to fool around with FERPA violations, since the punishment for FERPA violations can be as much as losing eligibility to award federal student aid,” writes Kantrowitz.

Anytime you give your information to another party, there’s always a risk, so take responsibility to reduce that risk. Approach financial aid forms as an intelligent consumer, and that means reading the fine print. Don’t blindly trust a scholarship sponsor without knowing what you’re getting into, says Weinstein. “Pay attention to your private information,” she says. “It’s very important that we help students understand that, because it’s becoming more and more of an important issue in society for all of us.”

By Bridget Kulla

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