The government’s consumer watch dog is asking Google, Yahoo and Bing to help stop criminals from using their search engines for student debt relief scams. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez, File)

Type the phrase “student debt” into any search engine and dozens of results promising loan forgiveness or lower monthly payments appear. Click on any number of these listings and up comes the one thing that no legitimate debt relief company is supposed to ask for: money upfront.

With the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau reporting a spike in debt relief companies skirting the law online, the bureau is calling on Google, Yahoo, Facebook and Bing to stop scam artists from using their search engines to target struggling borrowers.

“We are concerned that unscrupulous companies may be using aggressive advertising through search products to lure distressed borrowers,” CFPB student loan ombudsman Rohit Chopra wrote in a letter sent to Google on Monday.

Google, Yahoo, Facebook and Bing all have policies against advertisers misrepresenting their products or services. Chopra alerted the companies to the fact that there are debt relief companies who are likely violating their rules.

Google spokeswoman Crystal Dahlen said, in an email, “When we become aware of an ad that violates our policies, we’ll not only remove it, but in many cases remove the advertiser as well.” She noted that within the last year the company disabled more than 524 million ads that ran afoul of its policy. 

Officials at Microsoft said the company has an “extensive process for filtering and monitoring Bing traffic against known fraudulent patterns to help detect and prevent against fraud.” The company encourages customers to report potential advertising scams, which are an industrywide problem.    

There is no definitive data on student debt relief scams. But state and federal authorities say they have noticed a rise 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 Federal Trade Commission.

There are reputable debt consulting companies 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 companies are sidestepping the law.

In December, the CFPB shut down student debt relief company College Education Services and separately filed a lawsuit against Student Loan Processing for deceptive marketing and illegally charging upfront fees. State authorities are also taking action, with Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan filing several lawsuits against student debt relief companies in the past year.

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. 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.

Both the CFPB and the Education Department have issued consumer advisories warning of signs that a company offering student loan debt relief may be a scam. People, they say, 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.

Despite these warnings, officials at the bureau say people are still getting swindled by fraudsters. And that has made the cooperation of tech companies in stopping these scams so critical.

“By more closely monitoring advertising on key search terms and helping to drive traffic toward unbiased sources of information, your users will gain greater value from your search products and scammers will be less likely to flourish,” CFPB’s Chopra wrote in the letter to Google.

This is not the first time the government has called on tech companies to rein in on internet scams. During the housing crisis in 2011, the Office of the Special Inspector General for the Troubled Asset Relief Program worked with Google to stop scammers from preying on homeowners facing foreclosure.