Student discovers potential financial aid scam

Story by Monica Baltich

A small California-based company named College Financial Advisory has been sending letters to Wisconsin students claiming to help them find financial aid opportunities for a fee.

Freshman Aaron Hrad received such a letter over winter break at his home in Phillips, Wis. He said the letter seemed very official until he looked closer at the fine print.

“I noticed that it required a processing fee of $59,” he said, “and I’ve never had to pay a fee for scholarships and stuff before so it was kind of the first red flag.”

He decided to do some research about CFA. Hrad discovered that it was in fact a real company but the address was not for a processing center like the letter claimed, but a postal drop box in San Diego, Calif.

“They seemed to be teetering on the edge of being tricky and illegal,” he said. “They had my personal information and where I went to school, but I never requested anything so it made me really suspicious.”

The letter’s fine print also stated that the company was not affiliated with any institution and they were not responsible for the results of their search.

Hrad’s next move was to contact UW-Eau Claire’s Financial Aid Office to tell them about this potential scam.

“I wanted to let them know so they could tell other students about it,” he said, “because say you do fill it out and it’s fake, then it prevents you from getting the real financial aid.”

Financial Aid director Kathleen Sahlhoff said, once Hrad told them about CFA they notified the Federal Department of Education but is limited in what they can do about it.

“The trouble is we don’t know if this company is actually running a scam so there isn’t much we can do,” she said. “But we can say that students at UWEC don’t have to pay to get help with financial aid.”

Sahlhoff feels CFA letter is particularly disconcerting because it confuses people into thinking it’s official.

“It’s disappointing because we encourage people to look for and trust the official ones,” she said, “but they (CFA) work outside of the university so there’s no way to counteract it.”

However, there are measures students themselves can take to ensure they don’t fall victim to a scam or pay unnecessary fees.

Sahlhoff says to watch out for any financial aid applications that require a fee because there are very few legitimate companies that require it. Also, she said, a definite red flag is if the letter promises that a certain amount of financial aid will be guaranteed.

Sahlhoff highly encourages any student needing help with financial aid to come to the office on campus. She said the staff would gladly sit down with the students and their families to help them apply.

There are plenty of free options out there for people needing help applying for aid so there is really no need for students to pay.

“It’s a ‘buyer beware’ situation,” she said. “The best rule of thumb is to check into it, that way if you choose to pay for the services, you do so fully informed.”