CHARLOTTE, N.C. — This time of year, many parents of high school students are thinking of college -- not only what school, but how to pay for it. Consumer Reporter Bill McGinty has a warning about things you may be paying for in the process that are supposed to be free.

Bill McGinty will have two kids in college next fall, and the costs and miscellaneous expenses can be a bit overwhelming. Heading off to college is expensive enough, and the application fees can add up. Don’t spend money where you don’t have to.

For example, two thirds of college-bound students will likely use some sort of scholarship or financial aid. There are plenty of businesses out there willing to take your money to help you through the process -- but you don’t need them! Step one: FAFSA

"The financial aid application is called the free application for federal student aid, and the key word there is free," said Bruce Blackmon, who works in the Financial Aid office at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. There are people who will say for 89 dollars, we’ll help you fill out that form.”

The FAFSA form can be intimidating, but the government is trying to make is easier. In fact, you can now connect to the IRS and download your financials and tax info right into the form.

There are websites and seminars designed to do it for you or help you through it, and many of them are on the rise if you want to pay someone. But some of them aren’t legit.

Here’s another popular scam. You apply for a $750 dollar scholarship that you see is available. They’ll ask you for all your private information, social security, birth-date, and income. You’ll give it, but what you don’t know is there's only one scholarship available. Thousands will apply for it, sometimes nationally. 

Then, they take your information, bundle it with others, and sell it to third party marketing firms.

The Financial Aid Office UNC Charlotte says they are your free resource. No matter the school, this information as well as many of the forms and the process, are all free.

"We’ve pulled together a database of 100 external scholarship opportunities and we’ve gone through and vetted that for students,” Mark Walter at UNCC said.

So when it comes to scholarships, be on the look for these red flags: 

  • First, no phone number or contact information.
  • Second, no proof of past winners, as well as fake non-profit status. Both of those are easily verifiable. Be wary of winning a scholarship you didn’t apply for, and if it says it's open to everyone, that's another red flag. You shouldn't have to pay to win a scholarship. 

Think you’re immune to being taken advantage of? 

"For student families that have a larger income, they will charge you thousands of dollars, and for those with lower incomes, it might only be 50 or 100 bucks," Timeka Ruffin said.

If you want to partner with someone to help you, vet them carefully and set expectations. Ask around, maybe you don’t need them -- most of the time, you don’t. 

Be informed and ask questions. Every university Bill McGinty has called and dealt with was more than happy to answer any of his questions.