9 Campus Scams Every Student (and Parent) Needs to Watch For

Students — young adults on their own for the first time — can be attractive prey for financial tricks and foul play. Here’s how to spot the red flags.


Imagine you’re a scam artist looking for a vulnerable group to prey on.

Old people are often good marks, but they’re dispersed throughout the population, so finding a group to victimize can prove problematic. The very young are too often protected by parents and may not have enough money to make them worthwhile targets. But college students? Perfect.

College students are old enough to have money, young enough to be vulnerable and likely to be unsupervised and away from home for the first time. Added bonus: They’re not hard to find because they congregate by the thousands on campuses nationwide.

Now that you’ve gotten inside the head of those who might be preying on you or someone you love, take a few minutes to study some common college scams.

1. Tuition scam

Someone calls claiming to be with administration or admissions. They warn that your tuition is late and as a result, you’ll be dropped from your classes today. You’re ordered to pay immediately, over the phone, with a credit or prepaid card.

Solution: If you get a call involving money from anyone regarding anything, get off the phone and call the applicable office yourself. Simply explain to whoever is calling that you’ll be calling them back, then check the status of whatever seems to be the problem.

This scam is a variation of the old unpaid bill scam, in which you get a call warning of dire consequences if you don’t immediately send money. In another common iteration, it’s a fake IRS agent warning of jail time.

2. Bad behavior

College students are legendary when it comes to finding ways to get into trouble or compromising positions. But now everyone has a smartphone, and therefore a camera. So, everything can, and will, be photographed and/or videoed. And yes, there are people who will pretend to like you but are actually setting you up for blackmail.

One only has to look to the recent Ashley Madison hack to see what can happen when extremely personal information falls into the wrong hands.

Solution: If you’re going to do anything at college you wouldn’t do in front of your parents or a prospective employer, think twice. If you’re around people you don’t know, and/or have been drinking, think 10 or 20 times.

3. Fake credit cards … and real ones

The Credit Card Accountability, Responsibility, and Disclosure (CARD) Act of 2009 banned banks from heavy credit card marketing on campus, but that doesn’t mean banks and card companies don’t still actively pursue college students.

Credit cards and other accounts that are heavily solicited are the ones most likely to be loaded with bad terms, big fees and high interest rates. Even worse, some credit card solicitations might be disguising an identity thief. Tread carefully.

Solution: If you need a credit card, don’t respond to one that solicits you. Instead, do your own hunt for the best card. The best deals in many areas of life, including credit cards, are often the least advertised, so look around online (we have a credit card search here) and at local banks and credit unions. Compare fees, terms and conditions, then make an informed decision.

4. Passwords

Everyone knows not to use the same simple or easy-to-guess passwords on multiple sites, or at least everyone should know. So why do we continue to risk our digital lives by using them anyway? Don’t store passwords or other sensitive information on your phone, or laptop, or anything else that can be easily stolen.

Solution: Use any number of free programs to create, track and change your passwords. You just remember one password, your password manager does the rest. See 5 Password Managers to Keep All Your Secrets Safe.

5. Advance fees

If someone wants to charge you a fat fee in exchange for a loan, job, scholarship, debt counseling, FAFSA completion or almost anything else, it’s likely either a scam or someone charging too much for doing something you can do yourself.

Solution: Whatever the situation, the higher the fee, the more suspicious you should be. When it comes to scholarship and financial aid scams, the FTC offers these red flags to watch for:

  • “The scholarship is guaranteed or your money back.”
  • “You can’t get this information anywhere else.”
  • “I just need your credit card or bank account number to hold this scholarship.”
  • “We’ll do all the work. You just pay a processing fee.”
  • “The scholarship will cost some money.”
  • “You’ve been selected” by a “national foundation” to receive a scholarship – or “you’re a finalist” in a contest you never entered.

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