Maybe you've gotten a phone call from a debt counseling company offering to help you manage your federal or private student loans. Or maybe you opened an e-mail claiming that they could ensure all your student loan debt was forgiven. Did it seem too good to be true? That's because it was.
Scammers are taking advantage of student loan borrowers who are struggling to make their payments by offering, for a hefty fee, to either lower their monthly payments or make their debt go away entirely.
"The biggest scam that is out there that would impact students with debt, is the debt relief scam," said Susanne Martindale, a staff attorney at the consumer protection non-profit Consumer Union.
While many borrowers are being taken in by these dishonest schemes, there are some easy ways to avoid getting conned, if you know what to expect. There are also several critical ways to respond, such as rehabilitating your loans, if you've been taken in.
In most versions of this student loan scam, a company offers to help you reduce your monthly payments or get your loans forgiven. After you pay them, they either disappear, give you inaccurate advice or charge you hundreds of dollars to do something that you could do on your loan servicer's website for free. Most borrowers who fall for the scam lose several hundred dollars in fees. Others have been duped into handing over thousands of dollars in student loan payments.
There are two main reasons that so many borrowers are falling for this popular con. One is that the federal student loan system is complex and confusing.
"There are all kinds of companies in contract with the government to handle loan payments," said Martindale. "It can be difficult for students to know who is legit."
The financial desperation that borrowers feel when they fall behind on their payments also contributes to the problem.
"The dramatic rise in student loan defaults," said Seth Frotman, student loan ombudsperson at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), "has created a space for scammers to flourish."
So, what can you do to avoid being duped? It's critical to protect yourself by following these four tips.
1. Avoid Upfront Payments
If the caller is asking for an upfront payment or an application fee, hang up. It's likely a scam.
"If you are a company using telemarketing sales to market a debt relief plan to somebody," said Martindale, "you cannot get an upfront fee unless and until you've negotiated an agreement."
Companies that are asking for upfront payments over the phone are often doing so illegally. You won't have to pay legitimate companies until after they've helped you.
2. Be Wary of Aggressive Sales Pitches
The quickest way to assess whether a company is trying to dupe you or not is to pay attention to their sales pitch.
"If they have a pushy sales pitch, and they're trying to get you to give them money or sensitive information quickly," said Martindale, "then you're right to be skeptical."
3. Don't Give Out Your Personal Info
Not all scammers want your credit card details, but some may ask for your Social Security number. Martindale advises borrowers to never give out sensitive information to someone over the phone.
When it comes to people calling you on the phone, "nobody legitimate asks for your Social Security number," Martindale said. "If someone is making fast promises and wants access to your financial or personal information, be very careful. That's a classic indicator they don't have your best interests at heart."
4. Do Your Research
If you're uncertain if a debt relief company is actually trying to help you, you should check them out online.
"It's not always easy to tell if a company is legitimate," Martindale said. "If it's a company that you haven't heard of, you should get off the phone and do a quick search."
The best places to check are the CFPB website, the Better Business Bureau and your state attorney general's office, as these sites flag fraudulent companies. You can also go to the National Foundation of Credit Counseling's website to see if they're listed as legitimate.
What Can You Do If You've Been Scammed?
While most people who have been scammed can't get their money back, if you paid for the bogus credit counseling services with your credit card, then you might be able to reverse the charges.
If your loans became delinquent or went into default while you were waiting for help, Martindale suggests you focus on getting back in good standing. For loan delinquencies, you should contact your loan servicer and discuss a way to catch up on your payments. If you're in default, you have fewer options.
If you have federal loans, Martindale said, "there are ways to get out of default. One of them is to consolidate your loans, which creates a new loan."
She also suggested borrowers consider a rehabilitation plan for their federal loans. This allows them to make nine monthly payments of up to 15 percent of their income to get back into good standing.
Martindale also suggests you report being scammed to the CFPB, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and your state attorney general's office. The CFPB tries to get money back for borrowers who have been scammed, while the FTC and your attorney general will alert other borrowers and potentially prosecute the companies.
Ultimately, Martindale urges borrowers to be cautious and skeptical when dealing with anyone saying they can help manage student loans.
"There's a reason why it's a cliche. If it seems too good to be true," she said,"it really is."