As a high school student, you probably don’t have a lot of familiarity with security best practices. That’s not surprising; after all, how are you supposed to learn this stuff if you’ve never had a credit card or taken out a loan?

Online security is more important than most people realize, though, and you have to take it seriously. Being a victim of fraud could mean delays to your education, as well as financial and reputational damage that will follow you for years to come.

What is Financial Aid Fraud?

The US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is working alongside the Department of Education to expose one of the biggest fraud threats currently facing the American people: student aid fraud.

According to the FBI, cyber criminals are targeting college and university students using a technique called “spear-phishing.” This practice involves a fraudster targeting specific individuals and tricking them into handing over their personal information.

Criminals engage in these campaigns around the time that the government disburses federal aid. The fraudster often impersonates a trusted individual, like a student loan officer or school official. They may also pretend to be someone close to students, like friends or relatives. The fraudster then tricks students into sharing the account information for their student aid profiles.

Once the criminal has access to a student’s account, that person can change the funding information and redirect the student’s loan money to a different bank account. The government deposits the money in the fraudster’s account, and the criminal then disappears with the victim’s loan money.

Being the victim of student loan fraud carries serious consequences. First, you don’t get the money you need to pay for classes or cover your costs of living. Second, you still get hit with the debt; if a fraudster steals loan money in your name, you may have to repay thousands of dollars that you never received.

Fraud can impact your credit for years, making it harder to purchase a car or house, or to take out credit cards. Some employers also check their applicants’ credit scores during the hiring process, so having a bad score could even keep you from getting the job you want.

How to Prevent Financial Aid Fraud

Law enforcement agencies are working to fight this threat. However, it’s ultimately up to you to make sure that you are taking necessary precautions to protect against financial aid fraud.

We recommend you take the following precautions to help guard your financial aid dollars against criminals:

  • Keep Up With New Developments: Law enforcement and universities put out regular information about new fraud tactics used by criminals. Staying up-to-date on this information can help you spot possible fraud before it happens.
  • Know Who to Call: You should know your genuine points of contact if you need to reach out to someone for assistance. You should know the phone number and email address to contact your university’s financial aid office, or at least how to find the right person if needed.
  • Stick to the Script: Loan officers and school officials will have guidelines for how they contact students. If a message seems suspicious, don’t risk it; instead, try calling an official phone line for more information.
  • Forward it Along: If you receive a message that seems suspicious, don’t simply ignore it. Instead, you should forward it to either a loan officer, or your school’s financial aid office. This can help identify new threats and protect you as well as your fellow students.
  • Use Multifactor Security (if Available): Multifactor security relies on more than just a password to verify your accounts. If your system offers multifactor authentication, be sure to take advantage of it.
  • Sign Up for Notifications: Many schools and lenders will let you receive notifications any time your personal information is changed. If available, be sure to sign up for notifications about changes to your banking details or student loan disbursement information.

You Can’t Afford to Ignore Fraud Threats

Online security is probably not the first thing at the top of your list, especially when you’re trying to navigate the financial aid process while also adjusting to life in college. Given what’s at stake, though, you can’t really afford to ignore it.

Online fraud protection is complicated, and new threats are developing all the time. But, just a little due diligence can go a long way to defend against fraud.