On March 3, the IRS abruptly disconnected an important tool for completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Without warning or immediate explanation, the Data Retrieval Tool (DRT), which locates and imports required tax information for FAFSA completion, simply went off line leaving thousands of students and families without what has been a key feature for ensuring accuracy as well as speeding up the process of applying for federal financial aid.
Suddenly the FAFSA application went from a relatively minor exercise in form completion to a time-consuming ordeal involving tax documents filed two years ago and an increased possibility of being “randomly” selected for a closer review of credentials. The problems were compounded by a dead DRT link on the FAFSA application that kicked students off and forced them to start again, as well as an incorrect FAX number for obtaining the IRS tax return request form (this has been corrected).
In all fairness, the tool was shut down out of security concerns and the good news is that because of the introduction of “early” FAFSA, students already had months to submit their aid applications before the DRT became unavailable. But for those who didn’t get the message about early FAFSA or who otherwise delayed filing FAFSA—and there are many—the headaches just began.
And when one door closes another door opens. In this case, the shutdown of the DRT seems to have opened the door to a new breed of scammers less interested in charging unwarranted fees to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid and more interested in the possibility of gathering private and very valuable personal information possibly leading to identity theft.
So where might they find social security numbers, email addresses, and birth dates—all necessary for committing this kind of fraud? In at least one case, they are turning to a student’s completed Common Application, which when provided along with a copy of a parent’s completed tax form represents a treasure trove of marketable data with the potential of causing a lifetime of misery.
It’s impossible to say how successful these folks have been so far, but since the day the DRT went off line, at least one group with a very slick social media presence has been relentlessly marketing to counselors and others they think might unwittingly support the plan by referring students and families frustrated by the complications of completing FAFSA. And the offer of free FAFSA completion assistance in return for simply giving up Common App log-in credentials—email and a password—seems too good to be true, which of course it is!
Recently made aware of the latest scheme to obtain personal identity information from high school students through their college applications, officials at the Common Application issued a warning this week:
“In the last 24 hours, we’ve heard from some counselors that their students have received a solicitation email offering FAFSA assistance and directing them to a third-party website that requests their Common Application account information. We want you to know that The Common Application has no affiliation with this website–and more importantly, we want to remind you that you should never give your log in credentials to any third-party company or organization. You should also remember to sign out of your Common App account and close any browser windows when finished with your work, especially when working on a public computer.”
The Common App specifically asks that students not respond to requests for log-in information and contact the Common App support team at appsupport.commonapp.org with any reports or complaints.
The Universal College Application (UCA) agrees with the advice provided by the Common App. “Please be sure your password is unique and not obvious. Keep it safe and do not share it with anyone,” advised Joshua J. Reiter, President of ApplicationsOnline, UCA’s parent organization. “If you have questions about unusual third-party requests you’ve received concerning your application, please contact us at email@example.com.”
In the meantime, everyone should take the time to review the very valuable information provided by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) at https://www.consumer.ftc.gov/articles/0082-scholarship-and-financial-aid-scams. While this particular scheme isn’t directly addressed (yet), the site contains solid tips and advice for students looking for scholarship and financial aid information. Additional information on identity theft may also be found at https://identitytheft.gov/.
Reacting to financial aid scams targeted to high school students, Ioana Rusu, staff attorney for the FTC, warns, “A lot of ‘free’ products are not always free. Maybe it’s not cash you’re doling out, but you’re paying with your personal information.” And that’s simply not a great idea.
If you feel you may have been the target of financial aid or other scammers, please file a complaint at https://www.ftccomplaintassistant.gov/#&panel1-1. You’ll be helping yourself and others!