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Avoiding scams: how to recognize a fraud and avoid getting tricked

Nearly everyone has had the experience of picking up the phone only to find themselves listening to a recording announcing that they’ve won a free vacation, even though they never entered a drawing for one.

This is just one example of many different scams that come through a variety of outlets. Scammers utilize emails, phones, TVs, text messages, and even website pop-ups and ads in an attempt to get people’s personal information. With that in mind, it’s no wonder that most of us let our phones ring to voicemail, when scams are more common than calls from legitimate sources.

In April, a company working with UCC called the Educational Credit Management Corporation (ECMC) began to call students. This company provides student loan counseling services. Because the ECMC asked for the last four digits of the students’ social security numbers as well as last names, students became concerned that it was a scam and contacted the school directly.

This resulted in UCC alerting students to the possibility of a scam on April 21. “Our first thought is to protect the students,” said Tim Hill, the head of UCC’s IT department. “We want to put the students first.”

However, the Educational Credit Management Corporation is not a scam. It is a firm that UCC is officially using to help students manage their student loan debt.

Because it was soon discovered that there had been no scam, UCC sent out another email on April 23 announcing that students might be hearing from the ECMC soon. The company contacts students during their loan’s grace period. “They’re here to help students to better understand their loans and help prevent them from going into default,” said Michelle Bergmann, the director of UCC’s Financial Aid department.

ECMC is meant to help students avoid loan default, and Bergmann says avoiding default is easier than students might think. “What students don’t realize is that you can set up a payment plan of even a dollar a month and that can keep you from going into default.”

Although it resulted in a mix-up, Brian Sanders, UCC’s head of security, said that the students did exactly what they should have done. “If you think it’s a scam don’t give them any information, get as much information as you can from them, and get a call-back number,” Sanders said. If the phone number they give you is fake, no one will answer. Scams can be reported by going to the website of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

If they appear to be calling from a legitimate company or business, calling the business to see if they sent out the information is another wise course of action. Sanders also recommends thinking it through before acting. Legitimate companies will not ask for information they already have.

Another way to avoid scams is by paying attention to whether the speaker has a foreign accent. “They’re in foreign countries when they do this because that way they can’t be tracked,” Sanders said. Emails or texts with bad grammar or spelling may also be scams originating from another country.

The FTC also recommends that students stay away from “guaranteed” scholarships. “Reputable groups don’t charge for information about scholarships,” their website says.

The FTC also says never to give out personal information in response to an email. Some scams look real because they look like they’re coming from a bank or another company you’ve done business with. However, if they’re asking for a credit card or checking account number, they’re phishing emails collecting personal information.

In short, prevention is the best medicine. “Keep your personal information to yourself,” says the FTC’s website. “Protect your passwords, guard your credit card number, shred sensitive paperwork, and don’t leave your mail where it might tempt a potential identity thief.” This is also useful advice to apply to what information should be shared on social media sites.

“If it sounds too good to be true, it usually is,” Sanders said.