The uncertainty of the future. Good for student loans. (iStock)

You’ve probably seen the commercials or heard the radio promos promising to cut your student loan payments in half or lift you out of default with one call.

What many of those companies don’t advertise is that you can get the same help they are offering for hundreds or thousands of dollars for free from the government. And what’s worse, some will take your money even if they know there is nothing that can be done.

Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan has had enough of the false claims and empty promises. After filing several lawsuits against student debt relief companies in the past year, she is now calling on the Education Department to step up to protect struggling borrowers.

Madigan wants the department to create a training and certification program for credit counselors, similar to what the Department of Housing and Urban Development has for housing counselors. In that way, people having a hard time repaying student loans can find trusted advisers in their states, rather than turning to scam artists.

“We must provide student loan borrowers somewhere to turn to to access legitimate information and assistance,” Madigan wrote in a letter to the Education Department on Monday. “This is where Department of Education can play an important role.”

Madigan’s request is an indictment of student loan servicers, the middlemen who collect and apply borrower payments. Companies such as Navient, Great Lakes and American Education Services are paid millions of dollars by the federal government to not only handle payments, but also answer questions and help people avoid defaulting on their loans.

[There’s a way to dramatically lower student debt payments, but hardly anyone use it]

Yet thousands of people have complained to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau about servicers providing inconsistent information, misplacing their paperwork or charging unexpected fees. These are the same sort of problems that occurred in mortgage servicing and that led to consumer protection reforms in that space.

“Student loan servicers should be providing this assistance, but they are failing to adequately counsel borrowers about available options,” Madigan wrote. “This vacuum of information and legitimate assistance has provided an opportunity for scammers to fill the gap.”

The CFPB, the same agency that instituted changes in mortgage servicing, is now asking for public input as it decides whether similar protections are needed in the student loan market.

“Sloppy servicing can spawn scams,” said Rohit Chopra, the student loan ombudsman for the CFPB, in an interview. “When borrowers can’t get clear and accurate information from their servicer about how to avoid default, it can create the conditions for fraud. We can’t make the same mistake twice. This is deja vu all over again.”

Debt consulting is not illegal. There are reputable companies in the market that are upfront about the limitations of their services. By law, these companies must renegotiate, settle or reduce at least one debt before collecting fees for the service. They are also not allowed to promise results that they have no way of accomplishing, such as quick relief from default or wage garnishment. Yet many companies skirt the law.

In Illinois, Madigan found companies charging upfront fees ranging between $650 to $1,250 in exchange for simply mailing out paperwork that borrowers can obtain and submit for free. These businesses were telling borrowers that they were eligible for debt forgiveness programs, but failing to inform them about the conditions to participate.

In one instance, a high school teacher paid $898 to a company after being told she qualified to have her college debt forgiven, only to learn eight months later that she did not meet the criteria. That company, Broadsword Student Advantage, is one of seven student debt relief outfits being sued by Madigan on charges of deceptive marketing and illegally charging hundreds of dollars in upfront fees to eliminate student debt.

At the federal level, the CFPB shut down student debt relief company College Education Services and separately filed a lawsuit against Student Loan Processing in December over charges of illegally charging upfront fees and deceptive marketing. At the time, the bureau issued a consumer advisory warning of signs that a company offering student loan debt relief may be a scam.

People should avoid companies that require upfront payment, bank account information or access to their federal student aid PIN, an ID that would give a company power to take actions on a consumer’s behalf. The advisory is similar to one issued by the Education Department.

There is no definitive data on student debt relief scams. But government agencies, including the Federal Trade Commission, say they have noticed a spike in complaints in the wake of the federal government’s expansion of repayment options and forgiveness plans. In some cases, the same companies accused of mortgage relief fraud have reinvented themselves as student debt relief advisers, according to the FTC.

During the housing crisis, struggling homeowners could go to the Web site of the Department of Housing and Urban Development and search for approved housing counselors to help them avoid foreclosure. There are hundreds of certified counselors who receive an estimated $47 million in support from the agency for staffing and training.

It’s unknown whether the Education Department, which declined to comment on Madigan’s letter, would be willing to make a similar investment for credit counselors, especially since the department already pays loan servicers $840 million for some of the same services.

HUD spokesman Brian Sullivan said many of HUD’s housing counselors also offer credit counseling, which means the infrastructure exists for the Education Department to partner with the housing agency. But he cautioned that having trusted advisers available hasn’t stopped scam artists from trying to take advantage of vulnerable people.

Still, Madigan said people need to know there are certified counselors whose advice they can rely on, especially since student loan servicers are doing a poor job of helping. She said people routinely complain to her office of servicers pressuring them into making payments, but not providing sustainable solutions for them to stay on top of their loans.

“Any time that you have hundreds, if not thousands of scam artists that have taken to the airwaves to tell struggling borrowers that there is free assistance available, you know there is a problem. Something isn’t working,” Madigan said in an interview.

Want to read more about the student loan servicing? Check out these stories:

A guide to paying off your student loans

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There’s a way to dramatically lower student debt payments, but hardly anyone use it