Activists protest March 15, 2022, outside of the White House to “Cancel Student Debt.” The Supreme Court’s decision that the Biden administration didn’t have the authority to cancel student debt helped sow confusion that scammers are using to their advantage. (Paul Morigi/Getty Images for We The 45 Million)
Complaints about student debt relief scams are increasing as the date approaches for borrowers to restart payment on their student loans after more than a three-year pause.
Consumer protection advocates say that the Biden administration’s student debt relief efforts, the subsequent halting of those policies by the courts, and the restart of student loan payments have bred confusion that allow companies to take advantage of borrowers.
“There is sort of this perfect storm out there that I think is allowing these fraudsters to prey on people,” said Dan Zibel, vice president, chief counsel, and co-founder of Student Defense, a nonprofit focused on student rights.
Zibel said that there has been a lot of policy and legal news on student debt relief for borrowers to absorb in a couple years.
“There is news about repayment plans, news about cancellation, different types of cancellation, whether it’s public service loan forgiveness or fraud-based cancellation, the COVID pause, and then the courts get involved. Debt forgiveness is happening. Debt forgiveness is not happening. There’s new debt forgiveness,” he said. “ … I think that sows confusion for a lot of people.”
And with 44 million owing more than $1.7 trillion — the third highest consumer debt in the U.S. — the appetite for relief is great and makes many easy prey for scammers.
Many of the debt relief scams often start with a telemarketing call where borrowers are promised debt relief if they pay a regular fee. The callers ask for sensitive personal information, and mislead borrowers about being affiliated with the U.S. Department of Education and student loan servicers. Some mention “Biden Loan Forgiveness.”
The number of complaints coming to the FTC about student debt relief scams has steadily risen in the past few months as the restart of student loan payments approaches, from 385 in June to 562 in July and 610 in August. And the FTC and Department of Justice have been cracking down on the scammers. In August, the agencies returned $9 million to people who paid up to $800 in upfront fees to Ameritech Financial, to take part in what they thought was a federal loan assistance program. The scam also led borrowers to believe that their membership fees would help pay their student loan balance. Arete Financial Group, which said it was affiliated with the Department of Education, had a similar scam that convinced people to make upfront payments. The FTC sent $3.3 million to those consumers in June.
The FTC also has started working with law enforcement agencies and attorneys general to stop illegal telemarketing calls. Some telemarketing campaigns have included scammers pretending to be the government or businesses, luring unsuspecting student loan borrowers.
How we got here
The Biden administration has undertaken a number of policy efforts in the past few years to reduce the burden of student loan debt, including a program announced in August 2022 that borrowers who qualified could have up to $20,000 of federal student loans canceled. Twenty-six million people applied or sent enough information to the U.S. Department of Education applying for the relief. However, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against the plan in June of this year, finding that the administration did not have the authority to cancel the debt. Since then, the administration returned with the SAVE Plan, a new income-driven repayment plan that allows some lower-income borrowers to pay nothing each month and lets some receive early student loan cancellation, among other benefits. Students who have been defrauded by for-profit colleges are also continuing to receive student loan cancellation.
Zibel said that student debt relief scams tend to target borrowers who are the most vulnerable, whether they’re struggling economically or have language barriers that could make people less able to identify fraud.
But anyone could potentially be tricked by these schemes, said Kyra Taylor, staff attorney at the National Consumer Law Center. She said scammers are getting more sophisticated.
“I’ve heard reports from borrowers that scammers spoofed their student loan servicers email. And the only way you could tell that it was a spoof was by rolling your mouse over the links,” she said. “The scammers are so sophisticated and because the student loan system is so complicated, anyone could be vulnerable, especially if you’re getting an email that looks like it’s from your (student loan) servicer on its face. I think it’s getting harder and harder to tell.”
How to spot a scam
Taylor offers some advice to borrowers who may find themselves wondering whether they’re being scammed. For example, she tells borrowers not to provide sensitive information such as a Social Security number to someone they believe is a student loan servicer.
“We’re getting closer to restarting payment and people are expecting that their servicer is going to reach out to them. The servicer could be calling you but if they’re asking for personally identifiable information, I would hang up and call them back just to make sure that you’re talking to the right person,” she said. “The other piece is that it’s very unusual for the Department of Education to call folks. Any time you’re getting a call from someone saying they’re from the Department of Education, I think folks should be more skeptical.”
Mark Kantrowitz, an expert on financial aid and author of “How to Appeal for More College Financial Aid” told States Newsroom in an email that it’s a bad idea to share your financial student aid ID, which is your username and password, with a third party, because they can make changes you may not be aware of and will end up being responsible for. When borrowers log in, the federal student aid website makes it clear that the use of this information by a third party “for purposes of commercial advantage or private financial gain” is prohibited and subject to criminal prosecution, he added.
Taylor and Zibel said there are things the government can do to reduce the damage done by student debt relief scams. Taylor said that if the government automated relief to borrowers, scammers would have fewer opportunities to insert themselves into the process. Zibel said that the government should continue to educate people as return to payment begins on where to find legitimate sources of information on their student loans.
The FTC also offers advice on how to spot scams. The agency says it’s a red flag if someone tries to charge you for debt relief services before they have done anything for you as a borrower. Ari Lazarus, a consumer education specialist at the FTC, explained in an August blog, “ …Nobody but a scammer will ever offer you quick loan forgiveness.” Experts on these scams also remind borrowers that no one has to pay for help with student loan relief and advise borrowers to look at the federal student loan website.
Janet Yuen learned too late that she did not have to pay for help. In 2019, after receiving a phone call from A Better Solution Student Loans, or ABS Student Loans, she agreed to pay the company $33 a month to lower her debt.
Yuen, a social worker in Southern California, told States Newsroom that she quit making payments on her student loans because she thought ABS Student Loans was doing so on her behalf. Yuen said she paid $33 a month from October 2019 to November 2021 to ABS Student Loans and provided the company with the username and password to her student loan website.
She has about $263,600 in student loan debt and is out almost $900 — the money she paid ABS Student Loans that she said would have otherwise been spent on financial needs such as paying medical bills.
Yuen said she has contacted the FTC but the agency could not tell States Newsroom whether it is investigating the company because it does not make investigations public.
There is at least one government investigation into ABS Student Loans through Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison’s office. On Sept. 6, Ellison announced that 52 student debt relief companies are suspected of violating state law by not registering before offering debt settlement services and possibly misrepresenting fees and services, including ABS Student Loans. Deputy chief of staff for the attorney general, John Stiles, told States Newsroom that the office has asked ABS Student Loans how many customers it has in the state but the company has not yet responded.
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