I DIALED a toll-free number and heard a cheerful, recorded voice.
"Hi! And thanks for calling the College Funding Seminar Hot Line," it chirped. "Discover the little-known, inside secrets to getting the most money possible to pay for your child's education. Receive all the details at our next free seminar that's saving other parents just like you thousands of dollars."
Oh, dear. The old "secret scholarship" game, updated for the seminar age. The postcard promoting this seminar promised the "Shocking Truth!" about scholarships, and "amazing facts never before revealed!"
Why would colleges want to keep scholarships secret? Why would the facts be revealed only to a seminar company that bulk-mails postcards with no return address? Why would you think these amazing facts would be revealed free?
Maybe something's fishy here.
I left a message on the hot line, saying who I was and asking someone to call. No one did. So I can't tell you more about this particular seminar.
But I can tell you this: There are no secrets -- amazing or otherwise -- to unearthing student financial aid. You'll find all you need to know below.
The Federal Trade Commission sees an upswing in seminars offering scholarship information. You'll get a piece of junk mail at home saying that your student is "scheduled for an interview" on college costs or "has been identified" as eligible for aid.
But the so-called interview "isn't so much educational as it is a sales pitch," says attorney Gregory Ashe of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection.
At the meeting, a salesperson may imply that thousands of hidden scholarships lie within your grasp. To find out where, you'll have to pay.
Alternatively, you might be told that you can win more federal aid dollars by rearranging your assets to appear more needy. Most of these asset-protection methods involve costs, such as taking loans or buying annuities. And there's no guarantee that you'll get a larger student grant.
Other seminars offer to help you with college and aid applications. But you still have to gather all the information for the application, which is the hardest part of the paperwork.
If paperwork is your problem, your high school guidance office will often help you at no cost. So will www.finaid.org.
Among the sales tactics to be wary of, according to the FTC: claims that you can't get this information anywhere else (false!); pressure to sign up for the paid service now; testimonials from people who say they got big scholarships (they might be paid shills); money-back guarantees hedged with a lot of conditions.
Pitches to worried parents are commonplace during the precollege years. Telemarketers get your student's name from lists of people who buy yearbooks, order class rings and show up in student directories. You get a mass-mailed postcard, urging you to call an 800 number.
In 1997 and 1998, the FTC shut down eight companies that, for a fee, "guaranteed" they could find you $1,000 or more in private student aid. They charged $10 to $400 upfront and delivered a lot of useless information.
After the FTC actions, scholarship companies quit "guaranteeing" money, Ashe says, and switched to "identifying" $1,000 to $5,000 scholarships you supposedly qualify for. But the information you get may be inappropriate or out of date.
No legal action has been brought against any seminar operations, which cost about $750. But the FTC's Project ScholarScam is still functioning, so one can assume that the field remains under observation.
Here's the real "Shocking Truth" about finding college aid: It's easy to find -- and free. Your high school guidance office (or www.ed.gov) has the forms and timetables. The colleges do the rest after you apply.
"Between 90 percent and 95 percent of all student aid, including federal aid, is packaged for you by the college you attend," says Bruce Hammond, a college counselor at Sandia Preparatory School in Albuquerque, N.M., and author of "Discounts and Deals at the Nation's 360 Best Colleges."
Most of the remaining aid comes from corporations in the form of employee benefits.
Those "secret" private scholarships account for no more than 2 percent of all college aid money, Hammond says. You can locate them yourself, through www.finaid.org.
But guess what? If you find a $500 private scholarship, many colleges deduct $500 from your aid package, leaving you no better off. You'd pay a seminar for that?