It sounds like an odd problem to have, but for years, the U.S. Department of Education has been struggling to keep families from mistakenly clicking on www.FAFSA.com in their search for information on programs administered through the Office of Federal Student Aid.
Instead of reaching the government website dedicated to completion of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), visitors to the FAFSA.com site found Student Financial Aid Services, Inc. (SFAS), a private business based in California offering help on FAFSA completion—for a fee.
And the confusion amounted to a bonanza for SFAS, which is estimated to have made millions of dollars at the expense of unwitting consumers through an “illegal recurring payment scheme,” according to a complaint filed by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB).
Evidently, on top of capitalizing on a bit of website confusion, SFAS is alleged by the CFPB to have misled families about the cost of its services and billed them with undisclosed, unauthorized recurring charges.
But the gravy train for SFAS appears to be coming to a stop, as the Department of Education recently announced a negotiated settlement agreement to transfer the domain name FAFSA.com to the Department.
“Students and families applying for federal student aid shouldn’t have any confusion about whether they’re on the official FAFSA website or a commercial website,” said Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in an official statement. “This transfer will help provide clarity for parents and students.”
In its own defense, SFAS was quick to point out in their official statement that the company obtained the FAFSA.com domain name 20 years ago—long before the Department of Education offered families the option of filing the federal student aid application online. At the time, all FAFSAs were required to be completed and submitted using paper applications.
And SFAS was certainly not the only business to take advantage of confusion about websites. Student Aid Application Services LLC, based in Kansas City, uses a similar web address, FAFSA-application.com, and mysteriously comes to the top of Google searches for FAFSA.com.
But at least one pitfall has been removed for families to avoid while searching for the Office of Federal Student Aid and FAFSA completion information.
According to the Department of Education, the transition to full control over the domain name will take place in phases. For the next six months, the Department will host a splash page that “provides clear and unambiguous direction either to FAFSA.gov to fill out a FAFSA or to SFAS.com to access the fee-based financial aid assistance and FAFSA form preparation services that were previously hosted at FAFSA.com.”
Once the transition period is complete, families accessing FAFSA.com will automatically be redirected to FAFSA.gov.
Families with questions about FAFSA completion should go directly to the Office of Federal Student Aid, and consumer complaints concerning fee-based FAFSA completion services should go to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.