You don’t walk alone at night, you carry your keys in your hand as you walk to your car, you never leave your drink unattended, and you always lock your door. You’re doing your best to be safe, but what are you doing to protect yourself when you apply for financial aid each year?

Just deciding to not include personal info online is not an option. If you want grants, loans or a work-study position you’ll need to fill out the FAFSA, this requires a username and password. More and more scholarship searching is happening online, some are moving to online applications as well. What can you do to be sure you protect your identity when you are researching your options to pay for college?
Staying Safe When You Apply for Financial Aid

You are only as safe as your source.

No matter how many precautions you take, if you go to the wrong place, anything can be stolen. Criminals prey on people’s desires by capitalizing on raw emotions. There are a number of financial aid websites that advertise that they can help you; the only one you should be using is FAFSA.ed.gov.

Likewise, as you conduct your online scholarship search, be sure to research the company that is housing the list. Do they sell your info to third parties? Do they market your information? Is the information they collect necessary for the scholarship? I found a “scholarship” where the application was clear that it was a random drawing, but the app asked for my Social Security Number, date of birth and prior year income. It’s a clear sign of a scam when the requirements outweigh the reward.

Look in the address bar and make sure the site you are using begins with https:// instead of http://. The little s means the site is more secure and most browsers will verify the security and color the address correspondingly. When it is red, leave the site.

There are a number of people who prey upon families looking to finance college. This blog warns about the dangers of responding to unsolicited correspondence. Remember, the FAFSA is a free application; there is no cost to complete student loan paperwork; and when you graduate and want to consolidate your loans, it is also free.

Strengthen the weakest link.

Ever heard the saying “a chain is only as strong as the weakest link?” Well, your password is the weakest link in this chain. If you take every precaution to be in the right place at the right time and you are cautious about whom you do business with, but your password is ‘Password’, well it is only a matter of time before your identity is stolen.

You’ll want to use letters of different case, numbers and special characters. You’ll also want eight characters in length at minimum. But ‘P@55W*rd’ or any other variation of ‘Password’ is not going to help you. Avoid using personal information in your password. Your best friend may change over time, it’s easy to find out who you are related to, and most people put their pets names somewhere on the web.

Try using a mnemonic device for your password. These are great because even if the password is visible it is difficult to identify the method of creation. Can you guess this one?   TgWWT8!T8W!h3r

Two steps are better than one.

padlock-172770_1280While we are talking passwords, if you can enable two-step verification in an app or site, DO IT! I have heard all the complaints about how much of a pain it is, but I can guarantee the pain of identity theft is greater. I have read about kids not getting into college because their identity was stolen. I know a girl who found out that someone had taken out over $75,000 in student loans in her name. She applied for financial aid her senior year of high school, but the college told her she reached her max for student loans! Not the best news for an incoming college freshman.

In general, never use the same password on multiple sites. Also, limit your use of “sign in with” options. It sounds convenient since you are already logged into Twitter, but it makes it so all I need now is your Twitter information. The idea is to expand the number of keys that unlock the doors to your identity.

Be inconvenient.

Stereotypical criminals are very lazy. The goal is to get the most value for the least amount of effort and exposure. This tip is simple, the harder you make it the less likely you’ll be targeted.

Almost every browser has a private browsing option, like Incognito in Google Chrome or Private Window in Safari. Whenever you access your bank accounts, complete your FAFSA or search for scholarships use a separate private window.

These tips will help minimize your risk when applying for financial aid, but you are never 100% safe. Use common sense when you are online. If it sounds like a scam, it probably is a scam. Be safe out there!
EducationQuest provides free assistance with the FAFSA, student loans and loan counseling. Call, email or message us on social media and we will help you make sure to avoid these scam artists. I’ll watch the comments on this blog, so feel free to post your questions below, but be safe and don’t include personal information.