Millions of Americans are struggling to pay off their student loans and desperate to find a way to lower those monthly payments. Scammers know this, so they've created phony student loan "debt relief" companies that promise to help—for a price.
Law enforcement has taken notice of this relatively new industry. Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan is cracking down on companies that can't deliver on their "too good to be true claims" to reduce or eliminate student loan debt. Earlier this month, Illinois became the first state to file a lawsuit against a student loan debt relief agency.
Madigan charged two companies with deceptive marketing for selling bogus or worthless services. Some of these ads promised to help clients enroll in the "Obama Forgiveness Program"—there is no such program. According to the lawsuit, the companies charged as much as $1,200 to do nothing more than fill out paperwork for free government programs.
Telephone agents often falsely claimed the company was affiliated with the U.S. Department of Education, the lawsuit alleges.
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Student loan debt is a serious and growing problem in this country. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) estimates that outstanding student loan debt is approaching $1.2 trillion. About seven million student loan borrowers are now in default.
Last year, the National Consumer Law Center (NCLC), a nonprofit advocacy group, studied the student loan debt relief industry. NCLC investigators visited websites, made secret shopper calls, examined contracts and reviewed online complaints.
"There's a whole range of misrepresentations," said staff attorney Deanne Loonin. "They either make up a program that doesn't exist, or they describe a government program and make it sound like it's their own or claim to have some special way to access it for you."
In its report, "Searching for Relief," the NCLC found numerous problems, including: charging for services that are available for free; failure to disclose fees online or when initially requested; and providing inaccurate information about crucial topics such as consolidation loans and garnishment.
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Most of these companies claimed to offer a broad range of services, but NCLC's secret shoppers didn't find that. "They're not a counseling service, and they don't usually go through all the options available," Loonin told CNBC.
"They're usually selling loan consolidation, so they are going to steer you in that direction, no matter what." Loan consolidation is a good option for some people, but it doesn't work for everybody and may not be available to all borrowers, Loonin said.
NCLC's mystery shoppers also found that some companies charge a monthly fee that ranges from $20-$50 on top of the steep upfront payment. The report calls these fees "particularly suspect" since it's unclear what service, if any, the customer is buying on a monthly basis.
What can be done?
People are looking for debt relief, but they don't know where to get help. That enables companies to charge them for something they could do on their own for free. And while that's not illegal, it is against the law to make false claims about the nature of the service or lie about being affiliated with the government's Direct Loan Program.
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Mark Kantrowitz, an expert on student aid and publisher of the Edvisors Network, believes students should receive better counseling about their loan repayment options—especially students who are about to drop out of school. Dropouts are four times more likely to default and represent about two-thirds of the loan defaults, he said.
Kantrowitz would like to see Congress require debt relief services to "clearly and conspicuously disclose in their advertising and on their websites" that borrowers can consolidate their loans on their own for free at StudentLoans.gov." In 2008, Congress decided to require a similar notice for companies that charge to prepare the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form, he noted.
Last week, Illinois AG Madigan told a congressional committee that these scams are the result of a larger problem—too many former students are having a hard time paying down their student loan debt. At the very least, she said, the Department of Education should create a public awareness campaign to get the message out to current and former higher education students that there are programs available that can help them.
"The scammers have advertisements and these advertisements are working," she testified. "We need ads highlighting real programs to counteract them."
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Madigan would like to see a "streamlined and accessible system" within the U.S. Education Department to provide borrowers with information about their options and federal programs that might be able to assist them with repayment. She also called on lawmakers to pass legislation that would allow students to refinance their federal loans to take advantage of today's low interest rates, similar to what is already offered to homeowners.
Do your homework before you do anything. Start with free options and be highly skeptical of any company that charges a fee and requires payment in advance. "Watch out for companies pretending to be blessed by or vetted by the federal government and watch out for companies that pretend to be part of a public repayment program," cautioned Michelle Grajales, an attorney with the Federal Trade Commission.
Visit the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau or the National Consumer Law Center websites for information about legitimate sources of free assistance. The Illinois AG's office has prepared a step-by-step guide on student loan debt relief.
—By CNBC contributor Herb Weisbaum. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter @TheConsumerman or visit The ConsumerMan website.