Don’t Get Ripped Off At College

College presents students with a multitude of decisions: choosing a major; whether to live on or off campus; whether to participate in Greek life; and, perhaps most consequential, how to manage one’s time and money.

    Never before will many students experience as much freedom as they will in college. It’s best to balance that independence with a bit of caution, especially with respect to privacy issues.

    Those who do not could feel the painful impact for a very long time as scam artists wait with tricks to steal the unsuspecting student’s money and sensitive information.

    Each August, our office raises awareness with its Off to College Consumer Protection Week. Our team uses the opportunity to offer tips through social media, news outlets and this column.

    So what scams might a student see?

 Scholarship scams

    Who doesn’t want free money to help offset college costs?

    The Internet is one of the first places people go to research potential scholarships. You can find numerous scholarship websites, although not all websites are created equal.

    As a rule, avoid any scholarship website that requires up front fees or private, personal information, such as your Social Security number.

    Rather, stick to free scholarship search sites, and make sure you research the legitimacy of each before applying. Students should talk with a guidance counselor or the group offering the scholarship.

Social media scams

    Scammers know the best way to reach you is through social media. Be wary of any private messages or friend requests you receive from people you don’t know or messages/posts offering things that seem too good to be true.

    Also be wary of fake college or university accounts. If you want to connect with a school via social media, connect through its official website. As always, be careful about what information you share.

Housing scams

    Living off campus can be the first taste students have of living completely on their own. Every tenant must know the property’s accommodations and guaranteed protections.

    Watch out for fake rental or leasing advertisements that appear on various classified websites. In some cases, phony landlords will ask for rent to be paid in advance with a promise to mail the key upon receipt. Some accommodations may not even exist.

    Validate the physical address of the listed property to ensure the property exists. Also, check with the college for any list of units available for rent.

    Landlords must maintain rental units in a fit and habitable condition, meaning all health, safety, fire and housing code standards are met throughout the lease term.

Identity theft

   Protecting your identity is key in college and throughout life. Those living in a dorm or apartment with communal space must take extra precautions. This means don’t leave documents with personal, private information lying around. Shred such documents when possible or keep them safely locked away, and don’t carry your Social Security card in your wallet.

    Those who need to have their Social Security card and other personal, identifiable information close can check with local banks about renting a safe deposit box.

    Never share private, personal information with anyone who calls out of the blue, drops by unexpectedly or sends an unsolicited email. Some scammers may use fake university or government email accounts to allege you owe money or to request sensitive information.

    Anyone who receives such a request should call the office or agency and verify the request.

    In closing, college is a wonderful time in a person’s life, and the experiences should last a lifetime. Remembering these tips will help protect students against fraud with the hope of making sure those memories are memorable for all the right reasons. Be wise. Be wary. Be safe.

Patrick Morrisey is the Attorney General of West Virginia