Rep. Julie Harhart (R-Northampton/Lehigh) and the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency (PHEAA) would like to caution students and families about potentially fraudulent financial aid offers.

During financial aid application season, students and families may be contacted by individuals or companies offering assistance for securing money for a college education.

For a cost, persons or companies may offer help in securing scholarship money or in completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA.)

Some of these organizations are legitimate while others are not. Families should remember that free resources are available to provide them with the assistance they need.

The Federal Trade Commission warns that unscrupulous companies "guarantee" or "promise" scholarships for students. Such claims should be a warning sign. Families can avoid scholarship scams by looking for these types of misleading sales pitches:

*For a fee, the company or organization will provide a list of scholarship opportunities. If a student does not receive a reward and seeks a refund, they soon find that conditions have been attached to the agreement to make it impossible to get the refund. A request for a refund is denied and the student is out the money.

*Companies may claim that their information is simply no available anywhere else. However, much of the information they use can be accessed for free. PHEAA's EducationPlanner.org offers a free scholarship database.

*Some organizations persuade students and their families to send them money to "hold" an award, claiming that students are finalists in a scholarship contest. However, scholarships are only awarded based on a student's application.

*Organizations that have official sounding names, fancy seals, and a Washington, D.C. mailing address can give families the impression the organization is affiliated with or endorsed by the federal government, when in fact, no association exists.

*Free scholarship or "financial planning" seminars can frequently end with a sales pitch to "act now or lose out on this opportunity" for a fee. Any legitimate organization or entity will not use pressure or scare tactics.

Families are encouraged to report suspected scams by contacting the Federal Trade Commission at FTC.gov or by calling 1-877-FTC-HELP.

For more information on student financial aid, visit JulieHarhart.com.