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Money

The www.FedPrimeRate.com Personal Finance Blog and Magazine

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Losing Track Of Student Loans Can Wreak Havoc On Your Personal Finances

While having a big family is a wonderful blessing in and of itself, it’s especially rewarding during tax season. Don’t get me wrong; I value my family infinitely more than a tax refund, but it feels good to know that my commitment to my marriage and children is recognized by our government when tax time rolls around. We had twins last year, so when my husband and I realized that we would get a Child Tax Credit for both of them, we thought that was pretty nice. After deductions, we expected a return in the thousands, so we were happy campers.

During that same time, however, we were dealing with a frustrating issue that did not put smiles on our faces at all. Somehow, when I consolidated my federal student loans, one of them was not included. I didn’t understand how it could have happened, considering how informed the consolidation company was. Loan consolidators do all of the hard work for you - they call you out of the blue, offering to make your life easier by combining your student loans with a great interest rate and anything else you need, including forbearances. As they are explaining everything to you at the speed of light, they list all of your outstanding loans and help you to understand why making one easy monthly payment would ease your anxieties about student loan debt. They’re right; it does. So, I agreed with them and consolidated my loans. They reviewed the information with me again, reading back the information on each smaller loan that would be merged together into the big loan. So, I thought everything was taken care of.

And then we found the one that got away.

Actually, the one that got away found us; once the creditor discovered I had moved and gotten married, they politely called to let me know that I owed them money for a small student loan. It took a while to figure out what happened, but when we did, my heart sank. I was so young and I took out so many small loans while I was in school that I hadn’t been keeping track of them properly. So, when the consolidators did not have their facts and figures right, I should have been able to correct them, but I wasn‘t. I ended up with a defaulted loan because it went unpaid and unnoticed for quite some time. As many young Americans know, having a student loan in default is guaranteed to bring a lot of unwanted phone calls, anxiety, and grief that we did not want. One artist was so encumbered by Sallie Mae that he wrote a song about it:



So, we did everything we had to do to bring that loan back to current status, although it didn't happen until around the time we filed our taxes for the year. Thinking that everything was settled, we filed and waited, only to learn that the creditor had not reported the updated status of the loan, so our entire federal refund would be garnished to settle the debt.

Needless to say, that knocked the wind out of my sail.

Lots of people depend on their federal tax returns each year to cover large expenses or to revive their personal finances. However, outstanding student loans, if they are not current or at least in forbearance, can cause your federal income tax refund to be garnished. Although what we lost was actually enough to pay off the debt and would release us from it, we couldn‘t help but feel blindsided. Our tax preparer told us that we could have appealed the situation, considering that the return was garnished unnecessarily. We decided to just let it go. Although we mourned the loss of our beloved tax return, debt freedom, much like family, is simply too great a commitment to take lightly.

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Losing Track of Student Loans Can Wreak Havoc On Your Personal Finances

While having a big family is a wonderful blessing in and of itself, it’s especially rewarding during tax season. Don’t get me wrong; I value my family infinitely more than a tax refund, but it feels good to know that my commitment to my marriage and children is recognized by our government when tax time rolls around. We had twins last year, so when my husband and I realized that we would get a Child Tax Credit for both of them, we thought that was pretty nice. After deductions, we expected a return in the thousands, so we were happy campers.

During that same time, however, we were dealing with a frustrating issue that did not put smiles on our faces at all. Somehow, when I consolidated my federal student loans, one of them was not included. I didn’t understand how it could have happened, considering how informed the consolidation company was. Loan consolidators do all of the hard work for you - they call you out of the blue, offering to make your life easier by combining your student loans with a great interest rate and anything else you need, including forbearances. As they are explaining everything to you at the speed of light, they list all of your outstanding loans and help you to understand why making one easy monthly payment would ease your anxieties about student loan debt. They’re right; it does. So, I agreed with them and consolidated my loans. They reviewed the information with me again, reading back the information on each smaller loan that would be merged together into the big loan. So, I thought everything was taken care of.

And then we found the one that got away.

Actually, the one that got away found us; once the creditor discovered I had moved and gotten married, they politely called to let me know that I owed them money for a small student loan. It took a while to figure out what happened, but when we did, my heart sank. I was so young and I took out so many small loans while I was in school that I hadn’t been keeping track of them properly. So, when the consolidators did not have their facts and figures right, I should have been able to correct them, but I wasn‘t. I ended up with a defaulted loan because it went unpaid and unnoticed for quite some time. As many young Americans know, having a student loan in default is guaranteed to bring a lot of unwanted phone calls, anxiety, and grief that we did not want. One artist was so encumbered by Sallie Mae that he wrote a song about it:



So, we did everything we had to do to bring that loan back to current status, although it didn't happen until around the time we filed our taxes for the year. Thinking that everything was settled, we filed and waited, only to learn that the creditor had not reported the updated status of the loan, so our entire federal refund would be garnished to settle the debt.

Needless to say, that knocked the wind out of my sail.

Lots of people depend on their federal tax returns each year to cover large expenses or to revive their personal finances. However, outstanding student loans, if they are not current or at least in forbearance, can cause your federal income tax refund to be garnished. Although what we lost was actually enough to pay off the debt and would release us from it, we couldn‘t help but feel blindsided. Our tax preparer told us that we could have appealed the situation, considering that the return was garnished unnecessarily. We decided to just let it go. Although we mourned the loss of our beloved tax return, debt freedom, much like family, is simply too great a commitment to take lightly.

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Monday, September 15, 2008

My Three-Year-Old Thinks a Credit Card Can Solve Our Problems

credit cardsOne of my son’s favorite “toys” is his credit card. In actuality, it is a pre-paid Master Card that I received for the mail-in rebate on a PDA phone. The money long gone, I must have kept the card in my purse, because my excavating toddler found it and claimed it as his own. The card is bright orange, so it’s reasonable to believe that he would play with the small piece of plastic; however, the game he was playing was cause for alarm. My husband and I made the discovery one afternoon as he was leaving to run errands. We must have been discussing a bill of some sort because my son interrupted us, declaring, “Mom, it’ll be fine - I got my red car!” ‘Red car’, of course, is slurred toddler-speak for “credit card” - he pulled it out of his pocket to show us.

While the sentiment was heart warming, the premise was horrifying. First of all, how does my son know what a credit card is? We only have one credit card right now, and it’s locked away with the Hope Diamond as we rebuild our credit by paying off bills and living beneath our means. He may see us pay for items in retail stores with debit cards, but that’s only every now and then, as he rarely goes shopping with us. We knew that he understood that some plastic cards represent money, but to call it a “credit card” specifically and then assure me that everything would be okay because he had one was a leap in understanding that I did not predict or foster in my three-year-old son. Where did he get the idea that credit cards make everything alright?

Hubby and I laughed nervously, and then looked at each other, wondering how he could have formed such an idea. We talked about it and came to some realizations that we weren’t so happy with. Although we know that young children absorb new information like sponges, frequently learning things that their parents have not taught them directly, we were unaware of how acute his understanding of currency is…for a three-year-old, anyway. While he still thinks all paper money is worth $50, he comprehends that adults exchange money for items and services. He believes that money gets you things that you want; he usually wants food, and he sees us pay for food with money. However, to leap to the assumption that credit cards solve non-food related problems (my husband and I were not discussing food on the day in question) is a broad jump in my opinion. He is learning about money from some other sources, too. As a parent, I felt that it was time for me to take a closer look into his media exposure as it relates to money, credit, and how the economy works.

After I thought about it, I began to see how we in the Western world are so inundated with media messages promoting a consumer credit culture that there is no way to escape it without becoming a hermit. One of my son’s favorite cartoons has a main character who is rich, and she uses credit cards to fund her lifestyle - in elementary school. One CBS Evening News segment by Nancy Cordes explores how credit card companies are deliberately targeting children as young as three years old by integrating credit cards into children‘s games and toy accessories.



Then, even the safest of prime-time television shows are interrupted with commercial messages from credit card companies that promote lush, satisfying lifestyles that are made possible by the almighty plastic. While the television doesn’t baby sit my children, they see enough of it to possibly be affected by the onslaught of credit card marketing and comic characterizations of rich super-spenders who don’t carry cash.

What’s a mom to do?

I have to take a direct approach to teaching my toddler about money and credit, even now. Christian Credit One gives some great advice about how to begin exposing children to money management lessons, even in their pre-school years. Their website is at http://www.ccone.org/.



I plan on implementing some of those tactics in my daily routine with my little one. The first step is getting him a personalized piggy bank that he can cherish and keep as he gets older. I want him to be able to correlate responsible money management with fond family memories and family values. That way, instead of thinking that he is helping mommy by using his “red car,” he will remember the lessons that mommy and daddy taught him about saving and spending less than what you have in the bank, not more. We want him to think about how fun it was to go to the grocery store and help mom and dad pick out items based on cost to value comparisons, helping to spend the family money wisely. I have fond memories of learning about money in pre-school. I want his memories to be pleasant, too; not a reminder of how young he was when he first started on the road to ruining his credit through a warped understanding of money and red cars.

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Thursday, September 11, 2008

The Convenience of a Check Card and a Loan Shark All Rolled Into One

loan sharkPerhaps this has happened to you. You go to buy something at the store. It's been a busy week, so you haven't been watching your bank balance as closely as you should. The cashier rings you up. You swipe your check card and the cashier says, “It didn't go through. Do you have another card?” What happened? A check card draws money from your checking account, so your balance must have dipped too low to pay for your purchases. It happens.

Well... not anymore, it doesn't.

I switched my checking account to Bank of America a few years ago when I refinanced my adjustable rate mortgage into a home equity line. Back then, my credit was solid and it seemed like it would be easier to have my checking account within easy reach of my second mortgage and my Bank of America credit card. And like my other bank, Bank of America sent me a check card so I could make purchases with the ease of a credit card, minus all those pesky finance charges.

The first time I received an overdraft fee, I didn't think much about it. When you buy gas, the charge doesn't always show up right away and if you forget to keep track of your pending charges, sooner or later you're going to overdraw the account, especially if you're living paycheck to paycheck. The fee was hefty, but it was a small price to pay to make sure my charges were covered. Bank of America would have commended me for my attitude.

Then things started getting tight between paychecks, with more and more checks and charges floating around, and I started getting negative balance numbers that looked strangely plump. I thought maybe someone over the internet had stolen my account number, but the charges were all mine. In fact, I'd made several of them that same day. Twenty dollars here, six dollars there, twelve dollars somewhere else... and even though the balance must have been precariously low when I made the first of the three transactions, I was sure that the other transactions should have been declined. Furthermore, the fact that those two had gone through after the account dipped below zero meant that Bank of America had assessed another $70 in overdraft fees.

If I went to an ATM and tried to withdraw the same amount of money, Bank of America would have checked the balance and said, No dice. If I used my check card, on the other hand, it would authorize the charge regardless of whether or not I had money in my checking account. What mad, tortured logic was this? I could understand having to pay a fee when one too many floating charges collided because I hadn't been keeping a balanced checkbook. What I couldn't understand was how transactions kept getting approved after my account dipped below zero. It didn't make any sense.

My first credit card was a Capital One gold card, offered to me when I was still in high school. It had a $2000 dollar limit back then, and I can remember the exact moment that I reached that limit because the cashier handed it back to me and said, “It was declined, sir.” I'd gone over the limit and couldn't use the card any more. There was an over-the-limit fee and everything. I don't recall how far I'd gone over the limit, but it didn't take more than a single payment to get me back to $2000. One thing I remember very clearly was calling to ask Capital One whether I would be assessed another fee if the finance charges pushed the balance back over the limit. The customer service rep told me, “No, as long as you don't make any charges while you're over the limit, there won't be any more over-the-limit fees.”

It seemed logical to me. If I was to be penalized for using the card when my available balance was too low, that was fair, but if the credit card company could stack fees on top of each other until I got another over-the-limit fee, that was ridiculous. What Bank of America was doing with my check card charges seemed equally ridiculous.

In a single month, Bank of America charged me $350 in overdraft fees, spread out over ten separate charges. Many of these charges should have been declined in the first place, but I was noticing something else. Bank of America had an ugly habit of clearing charges in order from largest to smallest, often draining the account with the first charge and causing multiple overdrafts when clearing them in order would have overdrawn on only the largest transaction. This policy was the source of class action lawsuit against Nationsbank, which became Bank of America, that was settled in 1999. Since then, they've been informing new account-holders of the policy per the settlement agreement, but I don't recall being told about the policy by the manager who set up my account. I'm sure it's in the stack of papers he gave me to sign, or in the folder full of pamphlets I didn't have time to read after the account was processed.

The check clearing policy, however underhanded, is now an industry standard. Most banks will clear your largest checks first, claiming that this is “for your own good.” You want your mortgage payment to go through, don't you? What they don't say is that the three or four smaller transactions after the mortgage payment will go through as well, to the tune of $140.

From the Bank of America website:

Though the Bank of America Visa Check Card is accepted nearly anywhere VISA Cards are accepted, it's not a Credit Card and it's not tied to a line of credit.


Fair enough, but if it's not really a credit card, why do so many transactions go through after you overdraw your account, sometimes days after your account has fallen to a negative balance?

Bank of America explains their methodology:

We charge an overdraft fee when we pay a check or other withdrawal even though you don't have enough available funds in your account to cover these transactions.

In some circumstances, Bank of America may choose not to pay the check or other withdrawal. In this case, we will return it to the payee as unpaid, and may charge an Insufficient Funds Fee.


So, if they decide to pay the charge that should have been declined, they assess a fee. If they decide not to pay the charge, they also assess a fee. That's a pretty profitable arrangement. How exactly do they decide whether or not to pay a fee? Is it even possible to drop so far into negative numbers that your check card will be declined?

A few months ago, I found out the limits of Bank of America's largess when a series of overdrafts and the accompanying fees brought my account balance hundreds of dollars into the negatives. Knowing that the paycheck that would be direct deposited would be eaten up by the negative balance, I had no choice but to keep using the card to buy food and gas, each time watching yet another $35 fee join the transaction. $50 in gas? Let's just call it gas and a short term loan. A $35 fee for every purchase would be criminal if it was actually a finance charge, something akin to what a loan shark might charge, but I didn't have any choice if I wanted to gas up my car to go to work.

It seemed like they were willing to pay on anything as long as they could attach another overdraft fee, so I took one final look at my balance, $-643 and change, and I paid my electric bill. To my astonishment, the transaction was actually approved. I really hadn't expected it to work. A few days later, Bank of America changed its mind about this act of extreme generosity and canceled payment, charging me both the original overdraft charge, as well as the returned item fee.

Remember that thing I mentioned about their “biggest items first” policy, and how it was for my own good? I didn't use the card any more after that, but I forgot about a monthly membership charge that automatically debits the checking account in the amount of $9.96. That charge went through AFTER they declined to pay the debit to the electric company, and it was approved and paid, with the standard $35 overdraft fee tacked on, of course.

The policy of letting transactions go through even after an account's available balance reads $0.00 has become standard in the industry, and it's not even limited to check cards any more. My wife used a SunTrust debit card to buy about $50 worth of groceries last night, entered the PIN number at the Publix register, received approval and went home thinking that the charge was covered by money in the account, only to find a negative balance in the morning and a returned check fee.

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Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The Value of a Teacher? Not Enough to Collect Unemployment Benefits

unemployment2007 was a rough year for me. I was living off student loans, trying desperately to finish my degree in time to look for a teaching job at the start of the school year. I managed to find a job within a month of graduating, which was a lucky break, only to find out my school district would be paying me monthly, on the last day of the following month. My only consolation was that I managed to avoid the scourge of post-graduation unemployment, but before the school year was over, I was back on a collision course with the Florida unemployment system, thanks in part to the voters of my state.

In November of last year, the principal of my high school announced that his nightmares had come true, that Florida voters had passed a ballot initiative that increased the Homestead Exemption. I'd been teaching for only a few months, but I'd been made to understand by the other teachers that whenever the voters passed anything that would cut their taxes by a few hundred dollars, it cut the state budget by that same hundred dollars multiplied by millions of Florida tax-payers. That meant budget shortfalls for the every department of state government, including the Polk County School Board, which employed me as an English teacher. Within a few months, the principal told me what I'd already come to suspect. A first year teacher hired a month into the school year was at the bottom of the seniority totem pole, and I was one of the unlucky teachers whose units had been excised to cover the budget shortfall.

When the school year ended, I cleaned out my classroom, a portable trailer that was going to be condemned because of bad wiring only days after I left it, and I started looking for work. After a month or two without leads, I turned to the unemployment system.

I'd been dreading applying for unemployment benefits for a while because I figured it would be a long, horrifying process under hot lights, in the back room of some government office with Soviet-style bread lines out front. As it turned out, I didn't even need to wear pants to apply for benefits. In Florida, you can enter all your information into a government website and apply online. You can even enter your banking information and have the unemployment checks deposited directly into your account. I took note of when I was supposed to come back to the site and claim my weeks, entered my direct deposit information, and felt generally embarrassed that I'd worried about filing for unemployment in the first place.

You can't collect anything for at least two weeks, and there's a one week waiting period after that. This probably varies by state, but most people agree that you won't see any actual money for a month after applying.

While I was waiting, the state mailed me the first of several helpful updates about my unemployment claim, a sheet reminding me to claim my weeks on the appointed day, 8/19/08, through either www.fluidnow.com or by calling the toll-free number. It also explained in bold print that failing to claim my weeks would delay my benefits.

The next piece of correspondence I received was something labeled, “Wage Transcript and Determination,” which I correctly deduced had to do with how much I would be receiving from unemployment. At the bottom of the sheet, it listed my wage credits, and somewhere in the middle of a very misleading chart, it showed my eligibility, which they had rather curiously noted by putting an X under a box that said, “Insufficient Wage Credits.” That was the only hint that I would be receiving no benefits, as I received another letter a few days later which again reminded me to claim my weeks. The Wage Determination report itself was generic and poorly laid out, with its Ineligible and Eligible boxes side by side in such a way that I couldn't tell at first glance which one applied to me.

When I claimed my weeks on the appointed day and received nothing that week or the week that followed, I went back to that form and started to wonder if I'd misread it, which I clearly had. Maybe I'd seen the X under “Insufficient Wage Credits” and my subconscious had dismissed it as a mistake. I mean, it was ridiculous to think that my sister, who'd spent a few months working for an ice cream shop in Daytona, could collect unemployment benefits but teaching high school for a year wasn't worth sufficient wage credits.

Granted, her former employer had challenged her claim on the grounds that she'd been fired. My sister further clarified that she'd been fired because she left work to fly to New Jersey for our aunt's funeral and the manager had refused to give her the time off. She was awarded the benefits.

I called the number furnished by the Agency for Workforce Innovation, who was apparently responsible for administrating the unemployment program, but kept getting busy signals. I checked the documentation provided on the state's website to see if I could find out exactly why I didn't qualify for benefits.

From the Agency for Workforce Innovation:

Some of the reasons a person may be denied benefits are as follows:

  • Quitting either part-time or full-time work for personal reasons. Benefit payments can only be paid if you quit for good cause attributable to your employer, or for a personal illness or disability that made it necessary for you to leave the job.

  • Being discharged for misconduct connected with work. Misconduct is an intentional or controllable act or failure to take action, which shows a deliberate disregard of the employer’s interests. Misconduct may include breaking a known company policy.

  • Not being able to work or available for work. You must be able, ready and willing to accept a suitable job immediately. You must also be able to get to work and have adequate child care in order to be able to work.

  • Refusing an offer of suitable work.

  • Being on a leave of absence you requested.

  • Knowingly making false statements to obtain benefit payments.

I wasn't fired, and I'd worked almost a full school year earning around $15/hour. The unemployment system was being run by the state. I'd been employed by the state. Everything I said about my employment history was easily verified, right down to the budget cut that put me out of work.

• If your claim is not payable, the determination will explain the reason for denial and your appeal rights.


“Explain” here having the rather liberal definition of, “A box will be checked somewhere on a nondescript form, which you will then be left to interpret.” If this was because I hadn't accumulated enough wage credits, it would have been nice to know exactly how many I needed and how I was supposed to go about getting them. I turned to that bastion of knowledge, the Frequently Asked Questions link:

To qualify monetarily, a person must:

Have been paid wages in two or more calendar quarters in the base period;
Have total base period wages of at least 1-1/2 times the wages in the quarter having the highest earnings; Have at least $3,400 total wages in the base period.


Looking at my Determination, I had clearly earned more than $3,400 in the base period. It also showed that I had earned wages in two of the four listed quarters, though something was definitely off there. The four quarters were listed on my chart as 2/07, 3/07, 4/07, and 1/08, which seemed to suggest several quarters were only thirty days long and the last of them lasted from April all the way to the end of the year. I was an English teacher, but even I know how to divide a year into quarters.

The middle requirement, in which I needed to earn 1-1/2 times the wages of my highest quarter might be what they were counting against me, but based on how they were measuring their quarters, I couldn't be sure. In fact, what they listed for my earnings in the last quarter was only a fraction of what I actually earned, almost as though they'd carved off an entire portion of my 2008 earnings when they divvied the year into one-month or eight-month slices. It's very hard to make 1-1/2 times the total when one quarter doesn't even reflect half of what you actually earned.

I tried getting to the bottom of this again today, first checking the website for any information on my claim, and then calling the toll-free number. The website wasn't helpful, but it did tell me that there was an ongoing problem with the Internet Claims System and that I should call the Agency directly at the listed number. As before, the line was busy, but after an hour or so I managed to get through. An automated voice warned me that the call volume was higher than normal and that it might be an hour before someone could speak to me. It helpfully suggested using the Internet Claims System, then asked me to choose from a list of options. I chose the one that would connect me with an agent, fully prepared to wait however long it took to get some answers.

The automated voice warned again that the Agency was experiencing higher than normal call volume, then said, “There are no representatives available. Please call back later if you would like to speak to a representative.” The automated voice repeated this strange pronouncement a second, and then a third time, “There are no representatives available,” and then it terminated my call.

Apparently, the budget shortfall hit some departments harder than others.

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Tuesday, September 09, 2008

False Promises: Unraveling the Labyrinth of Fake Jobs and Online Universities

online university bait-n-switch, part 2In my previous post, I talked about getting bushwhacked by an online university promoter in the middle of what I'd been told was a job interview. Not long after, the “online university that's right for me,” Capella University, started hounding me with daily recruitment calls and spamming my inbox. I figured I'd dodged a bullet by not signing on with Capella and their insidious financing options. What I didn't realize was that I'm walking around in a war zone with a target painted across my chest.

While media pundits argue back and forth about whether or not this is a recession, the rest of us are living in this economy and it doesn't look good. Costs are rising, jobs are scarce, and those of us who took equity loans against our houses are starting to feel cold breath on the backs of our necks. I've been looking for work for a few months now, and it's starting to feel like my full time job is sorting the real opportunities from the scam artists trying to make a quick buck off my desperation.

The worst of these parasitic, for-profit outfits are the online universities. It's not that they plaster their ads all over craigslist.org, monster.com and every other site that hungry job-seekers frequent. That's what advertisers do. No, the thing that separates them from other businesses that just want to make a buck are these proxy sites they use to draw you in, sites with names like “Career Network” and “The Career Selection,” when all these sites seem to be doing is foisting their partner companies on you.

It starts as soon as you find the job ad. You get diverted to careernetwork.com or one of its similarly named, carefully disguised sister-sites. You fill out a job application that seems real enough (and may, in fact, be forwarded to a prospective employer, though why any legitimate employer would pepper their application with questions like, “Would you like information on how to increase your credit score?” is hard to figure). Then you get hit with the first innocuous question:

We value and support higher education. If you would like information about educational opportunities in your field, choose below.
I would like to receive information about higher-education opportunities.
I do not feel I would benefit from educational opportunities at this time.


In this economy, the difference between getting the job and getting left in the cold will come down to who has the most impressive resume. If you don't have a college degree and you're out there, trying to make ends meet, you know most employers place a premium on applicants with a degree. All the best jobs require an Associate's Degree or a Bachelor's from a four-year school, and if you have a degree, like me, and are still struggling to find something that pays, you're thinking about how much easier it would be if you'd stayed in school for your Master's Degree. The first time someone asked me if I consider higher education if I could afford it, I answered honestly, and you saw how that turned out.

This time I checked the second box. Thanks, but no thanks. I'll apply to Grad School the old-fashioned way and beg the Stafford Loan people for money if I can't make it with my BA. I submitted my information, sans educational opportunities, and started on the next page of the application. Along with the standard employability questions (“Have you ever been convicted of a felony?”, “Do you have a valid driver's license?”), I was also asked more troubling questions like how I would rate my credit score, followed by the question I mentioned earlier, asking whether I wanted to learn how to increase my credit score. It seemed like every third question on the application was trying to get me to bite on some other service or advertising partner, including yet another offer to find out more about higher education opportunities. I answered no to all the fishing questions, except the last, which was an offer to tell me about other jobs that matched my resume.

In just a few hours, I received this email:
Dear Christopher,

I recently noticed the credentials listed on your electronic resume. I believe you might be a solid candidate for a Family Interviewer opening I seek to fill. Your previous experience with education is outstanding. I would like to invite you to apply for this job. Below you can find some basic information regarding the opportunity.

Family Interviewer

Excellent Income with long term career growth

An ideal candidate will have exceptional verbal skills, along with dedication to the job. To view a detailed description of the job and to apply online, please click the link below. If your browser does not allow you to click the link, you may copy and paste it into your browser. The link will take you to an informative Web page with requirements and compensation packages.

http://thecareer-selection.com/

Our human resources department will go over your application and contact you within 24 to 48 hours. When they contact you, please be prepared to schedule an initial interview.

Best Regards,
Brittany Harmon
Sr. Recruiter, HR Division


I was incredibly excited. After leaving my information on a handful of these online employment sites, finally here was a tangible result. But then I started wondering why I had to apply for the job if they already had my electronic resume. Was it some sort of standard formality? I didn't want to chance losing the job, so I clicked on the link. I'd been horribly disappointed when one of the applications I filled out earlier turned out to be a front for Career Network, who scammed me the first time and got me onto Capella University's Do-Call-and-Stalk list. This was a different website, with an entirely different look surrounding the ad-copy for the job. Maybe this one was for real.

Then, I saw it down at the bottom of the page, that same question about whether I wanted to know more about higher education opportunities. I couldn't escape these people wherever I went looking for work. Then I filled out the rest of the application, dodged even more suspicious questions that would have sent my personal information to even more advertising partners, but I was in for a nasty surprise. After I submitted the application, the site shed its false window dressing and revealed itself as Career Network. I wasn't submitting a new application, I was navigating the same advertisement-saturated employment maze that I'd already been through. The job offer was just one more attempt to get me to say yes to online education and whatever other products they could push on me.

So far, I had applied for a teaching assistant position at a private school, a legal clerk position, and the intriguing but probably BS position of “Family Interviewer,” with all three leading me on a wild goose chase through Career Network and their partners in the online university industry. I was tired of this nonsense and wanted some answers. Was Career Network even a real employment company, or were all of these job ads the cruelest kind of spam imaginable?

Judge for yourself. In 2001, Career Network was cited by the Federal Trade Commission in an ongoing investigation of employment corporations exploiting unemployed workers with false job postings that promised government jobs. From www.ftc.gov:

The Federal Trade Commission today announced five law enforcement actions against nine companies and seven individuals promising jobs with the federal or state government or the U.S. Postal Service. Through classified ads, telephone pitches, Internet advertising and training school seminars, the companies misled consumers into paying $45 - $80 for practice exams and application forms.

[...]

Career Network, Inc., and its principals, Walter Turulis and Kathleen Key. Complaint filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Indiana, Hammond Division, on January 3, 2001. On January 3, 2001, the court granted the FTC's request for a temporary restraining order, asset freeze, and appointment of a temporary receiver. On January 9, 2001, the court entered stipulated preliminary injunction, continuing the terms of the TRO. Civil Action No: 2:01-CV-001-JM; FTC Staff Contact: Gregory A. Ashe, Bureau of Consumer Protection, 202-326-3719.


Seven years later, Career Network seems to have made a remarkable comeback from its receivership, either by starting over or selling its name to a new company in the career-making business. If they were ripping off people in 2001, who's to say they aren't running a new scam now, one that borders close enough to legality that they can operate with impunity and continue posting false job leads that hand unsuspecting applicants into the hands of online universities who offer the perfect solution to their job woes: a fully-financed college education.

The lengths to which these online universities will go to acquire new students and the money that they'll generate borders on the absurd. They must be paying a small fortune to Career Network, hiding their hooks in every job application on not one but two pages of the application, and that's not the only place where they go trolling for fresh fish.

The owners of this blog informed me that Allied University, an online university, recently contacted them with the following offer:

Hi, we are willing to sponsor specific content, online degree post on your blog.

We, advertiser will create content and you will only need to post it.

Please let me know details about your terms of service and handles payment.


I can think of no better advertisement for the quality of an online university education than that.

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Friday, September 05, 2008

Would You Like a Free Degree With That? The Online University Bait-and-Switch

bait-n-switchHow would you like to earn a doctorate in record time, or a master's degree in less than a year? Sounds great, right? And think of the convenience to you when you discover that you don't even have to look for a university that offers these phenomenal program, they'll come right to you, sometimes while you're interviewing for a job.

If you've spent any time hunting for jobs online, you've probably answered an ad or two that sent you to a company like Career Network, where you had to sign up for an account in order to send your resume to the job poster. I found an ad through Yahoo Hot Jobs for a teaching assistant position at a private school I'd never heard of. Private schools often pay better than public schools, so I tried to apply. I was redirected to www.careernetworkjobs.com and asked to register with the site for my resume to be considered for the job. A little bit of a hassle, but I was willing to spend a few minutes filling out yet another application. I uploaded my resume and, within a few days, Career Network left two garbled messages on my phone about a job interview (from an out-of-state area code) and an email that said, "After reviewing your application we have determined that you meet our initial employment requirements."

I was a little unclear on whether I'd gotten the job or not, so I called the number that left the two cryptic messages and was transferred from New York State to an employment pre-screener in Orlando, who explained that his company was contracted to interview prospective employees and send the best applicants on to the next stage of the interview process. It was like being on a strange game show where the only questions you get asked are your name, address, and "Do you have plans to continue your education?" I confirmed my information and said, sure, I'd love to continue my education if I could afford it, who wouldn't? Not only did this get me to the next round of the interview process, I activated the special bonus round, and the pre-interviewer said,

"You sound like someone who cares a lot about his education, so I tell you what I'm going to do... I'm going to transfer you to someone at one of our partner companies who can find an online, accredited university that can offer you financial aid and help you finish your education."


Perhaps I should have been skeptical. I'd never been on a job interview that offered me higher education before, not even on a pre-interview. I certainly liked the sound of what they were offering. I'd exhausted most of my financial aid options getting my bachelor degree, and it was fast approaching the time when Sallie Mae would be asking what her investment in me had produced, aside from an out-of-work English teacher.

A new voice came on the line, and I was introduced to a no-nonsense woman from Education Connection, a company that would find me the perfect online university. All I had to do was tell them what I wanted a degree in. A master's in Psychology? No problem. She found just the school for me, with exactly the program I was looking for, at Capella University. Someone from admissions would be contacting me within the week, she said, and that was the end of the call.

It was a little strange to me that I'd called to interview for a teaching assistant job and somehow ended up applying to an online university, so I googled Capella University to see what I'd gotten myself into. Capella University was, according to my research, an accredited university. They even had a website with an .edu domain, something which most diploma mills, for-profit scam factories that take your money and give you a degree without even pretending to offer a legitimate education, couldn't manage. Was it possible to be an accredited university and still be a scam?

I asked a friend of mine who recently earned a master's degree the hard way, defending her thesis in front of a room full of professors, and she said, "It's been my experience that most online universities aren't taken seriously by the academic community." Keith L., a business professional on Yahoo Answers had this to say about job applicants with online universities on their resumes,

"...Given two applicants were equal, I would almost always give the edge to someone who went to a reputable school over someone [who got a degree from an online university] like Walden University. It’s easily the lowest rung of higher education out there. Maybe someone can create a Tier 5 for them to inhabit."


There are easily thousands of people online who claim to be working hard on their Capella University classes, and others who've earned degrees from online schools like this who believe they worked hard for them, but you'll find just as many students who felt cheated and ripped off by their online school, especially when they find out their school retains faculty that earned their degrees at schools like Lacrosse University, which is fully unaccredited as opposed to merely questionable. Disgruntled students from Capella University report being locked out of their online classrooms for spurious reasons, failing without explanation from their professors, and having additional fees sneak onto their tuition bill after being hounded by snake-oil selling admission counselors day and night to earn a degree at Capella.

It's been over a week since I was "interviewed" for that job, and I've heard nothing from the school that posted the ad, if they ever existed in the first place. On the other hand, I've gotten two or three calls from Capella university every day and just as many emails touting the school's excellent financing options. When I was considering attending the University of South Florida, no one called to try and sell me on the school. When I was thinking about buying a new car, on the other hand, dealers fell over each other to get in touch with me and convince me they had the best financing, but even a used car salesman won't barrage you with phone calls like an online university.

The worst part is that for many people of limited means, online universities dangle the dream of a college degree and full financial aid, never letting on that most employers will consider that degree a joke, even if you did work your tail off for it. Not every online university is a diploma mill, but it's absolutely true that a degree from a university that is entirely based online will not carry the same weight as a traditional degree. And how could they, when the schools that offer them do their recruiting with phony bait-and-switch job ads and daily phone and email spamming until you talk to one of their admission counselors/salespeople?

If you really value your education, do yourself a favor and get an associate degree from your local community college and financial aid through their financial aid counselors. Then apply to a real brick and mortar university as a transfer student. Don't get suckered by free financing and a new set of radial tires.

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Thursday, September 04, 2008

How to Get Paid and Go Broke Without Really Trying: A Job Offer Scam to Watch Out For

scamSometimes when you're desperate, the right job just falls into your lap, and if you're really desperate, you may not realize you're being suckered into an international money-laundering scam.

I lost my teaching job this year because of county-wide budget cuts, which has put a severe financial strain on my family while I look for something to pay the bills until a permanent teaching job opens up. There aren't a lot of places where a BA in Creative Writing gets you more than minimum wage, so when I saw an ad for English teachers on Craigslist.org, I jumped at it.

Reply to: amfrank007@yahoo.com
Date: 2008-08-27, 11:26PM EDT

I need a good and reliable English Tutor for my Kids....Attracts Great salary and benefits...Send your resume.

Adalberto Martinez Frank


In a flash, my resume was on its way to Mr. Adalberto Frank, and within 24 hours, I received a response that made my poor, unemployed heart flutter.

Hello [real name censored] ,

Good to hear from you and sorry for the late response, I have been busy with work and family at the same time .I acknowledge receiving your application and your resume which is very impressive. Please be informed that you are among the three people shortlisted for the teaching job.

Note: The teaching lesson will take place in my residence and here is the address where we will be living in the US and We will be arriving precisely by September 9th

6500 International Drive
Orlando, FL 32819
My childrens' name are John and Prisilia (A boy and a girl). We are originally from Spain but right now in the UK, my children speak little of the English language and i want my children to be tutored together for 6hrs to 10hrs per week. My children always get along together and they are very active. I can offer $30 per hour for both children because i want the best to prepare them to start school at fall.

I want you to reply me with the following details below 1. The days in the week you will be available to teach the children and numbers of hours per day starting from september 10. The children are available to be tutored any time and any day during the weekdays and weekends. 2. Your suitable charges per hour for both children if $30 if not suitable for you. Also your total charges per week because i will like to make payment weekly 3. The total cost of gas/transportation to my residence per week.
Regards
Adalberto Frank


Maybe I should have been suspicious that he found my resume so impressive. I'd only taught high school English for a single year, after all, and from what he was saying, he needed someone with ESOL (English as a Second Language) teaching experience. But the money was too good to pass up. $30/hour was more than I'd made during my teaching year. I couldn't softball how much it was going to cost to drive to Orlando, otherwise it would end up costing me more in gas to tutor the kids than I was being paid, so I sent back a lengthy reply, hoping that my transportation costs didn't bump me right off the short list. I mean, he could easily find someone in Orlando with at least as much teaching experience as me, right? And why was he looking for English teachers in Tampa anyway if he was moving to Orlando? I didn't dwell on these questions for very long because the prospect of a paying job was intoxicating. It didn't matter if it meant two hours of daily commute for the sum total of $300 dollars a week.

He replied briskly and apologized for the imperceptible delay in communication. Apparently, his father in Spain was very ill and that was occupying much of his time while he made preparations for the move. Then, he gave me the good news:

This is to notify you that you have been given a provisional appointment to be the English teacher for my children. You are selected based on your experience and passion to teach children.

A little background check was done on you this was to ensure that the data provided is accurate and that you have impeccable criminal-free record. (This is necessary because you are coming to be teaching in my apartment).

We will be arriving precisely by Sept.9th and the lesson begins on Sept 10th.
Here is our agreement:

1.Teaching for 10hrs/week.
2. That i will be paying you $540/week including Transportation as I prefer to pay weekly.
3. That you will tutor my children for 10hrs/ weeks for about 4weeks or more independing on catchups.Please confirm this agreement and let me know ASAP so i can arrange our commitment fee....

Frank Adalberto

Not only was he going to pay my travel expenses, he was going to pay me an extra $140 a week. I was floored. I had no idea what a commitment fee was, but I promptly agreed and ignored the fact that Mr. Adalberto Frank was now Mr. Frank Adalberto. He was foreign and wanted to pay me over two grand a month to teach his kids English. The commitment fee sounded like something I wasn't going to like, and I was prepared to turn the whole thing down if he wanted me pay some sort of nonsense fee just for the privilege of teaching his kids, but it turned out that he was the one paying the fee, which meant that I would be receiving a check in the mail for my first two weeks before I even met the guy and his kids. It sounded too good to be true, but he was the one paying, so there was no risk to me at all.

This is how I almost got suckered in. Frank, with his sick father and two young kids who needed a tutor, sounded incredibly convincing. His emails were frequent, his responses brief but direct. These weren't some spambot-generated, rote responses. I was talking to a real human being, so I didn't even think twice when he emailed me to say there'd been a mixup and the fee for the moving company was included in the amount his client paid me. Not to worry, he said, just cash the check and he'd let me know where to send the moving company's payment.

It's called an overpayment scam. According to the FBI agent I spoke to, the scheme is based overseas, with middlemen in the US to handle the checks. They offer you an advance on what you're supposed to be paid, then mistakenly send you a check for too much, usually double the correct amount. You cash the check and send it back to them via Western Union, and by the time your bank discovers that the check didn't clear, you're out of luck. The phony check gets cashed against your account, so it's your account that the bank will drain to cover the expense.

Once I realized this might be a scam, I did a search on the email address posted with the ad and was surprised to discover identical ads posted on lasvegas.craigslist.org and catholicjobs.com. Both were from amfrank007@yahoo.com and the Adalberto family, which meant that this was either a scam or three entirely different Adalberto families would be needing English tutors in San Francisco, Las Vegas, and Tampa. The very nice lady I spoke to at the FBI told me this was unlikely.

English tutors are not the only people at risk from these kinds of scams. I've seen postings from Math tutors, Spanish tutors -- and all of them answered similar ads from people who weren't always as convincing as Mr. Frank/Mr. Adalberto. But all of them eventually sent checks and all of them encountered similar mishaps that resulted in the overpayment of the would-be tutors. Right now it's tutors who are being targeted, but this sort of scheme is very easy to run on anyone who is happy to receive a fat advance and who is good-natured enough to return any money they weren't due.

If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. And if they're willing to pay you before they see you work, no matter how qualified you think you are or how much you're accustomed to getting, don't cash that check if it's for more than you're supposed to be paid. Just forward the information and the check to the FBI email fraud unit.

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