Sara Goldsmith Schwartz, founder & president of Schwartz Hannum PC, gratefully acknowledges the assistance of attorney John E. Duberstein in preparing this alert.
In the last few months, independent schools have seen an uptick in online “phishing” scams that target parents by offering tuition discounts. These scams are sophisticated enough to have ensnared parents, who then pay tuition to the scammer instead of the school. We encourage schools to be increasingly vigilant and to assist families in avoiding such scams.
What Is A Tuition Phishing Scam?
A phishing scam, according to the FTC, is an online scam that targets consumers by sending them an email that appears to be from a well-known source, then asks the consumer to provide personal identifying information, payment or other access to the consumer’s accounts.
This recent scam is designed to convince parents to make tuition payments to the scammer by offering a “discounted” or other “special” rate. The scams have become increasingly sophisticated with spoofing a school’s text, email or other message format to look like it is originating from a legitimate school account. In this instance, the correspondence will often purportedly be from the director of admissions and financial aid or the registrar.
How To Spot A Phishing Scam
Scammers will often use a slight variation of the spelling of a person’s name to spoof an address, so JaneSmith@TheSchool.org might become JaneSmith@TheSchool.com or JanESmith@TheSchool.com. Look for misspellings or variations of names or URLs that do not look quite right.
Another common component of these scams is an urgent or exceptional message, telling the recipient that they must act fast, or that an “unprecedented” deal awaits their rapid response. Any urging or pressuring language should be a red flag. Additionally, if there are links included in the message, encourage parents to hover over the link with the cursor – if the link does not match the URL that appears when hovering, that is a solid indicator that the link is not legitimate.
How To Combat Tuition Phishing Scams
With these recent developments in mind, there are a few proactive steps that we suggest schools take soon:
- Communicate with families and identify the only legitimate payment portals/methods for the school. For example:
- Highlight that the school never provides a wire transfer account number, but rather, uses a third party provider)
- Encourage families to verify all payments through their legitimate school accounts
- Encourage families to carefully scrutinize any communication from the school requesting payment (including the email address and any links)
- Encourage parents to contact the relevant school department if there is any question before making payment, and to report any suspicious activity so that the school and other parents may be made aware.
- Make all parent email lists secure and take added precautions when distributing them.
- Educate staff about the scams and encourage staff to be vigilant in safeguarding parent and student data.
Phishing scams are designed to trick the unwary. They attempt to manipulate people by exploiting vulnerabilities – in this instance, a parent accustomed to making payments online to a school may be easily victimized by the opportunity to take advantage of a “special offer.” The best way to combat these kinds of scams is to communicate with families and staff proactively and to help familiarize them with the dangers presented, while taking added precautions to secure email lists.
If you have any questions about phishing scams, or if Schwartz Hannum PC can be of assistance in preparing a letter to the community about the scams or updating your school’s policies and procedures surrounding tuition collection, please feel free to contact one of the firm’s experienced education attorneys.