On Thursday, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau accused Student Financial Aid Services, a company that helps people apply for college aid, of withdrawing money from customers accounts without their consent. The Sacramento-based company, which denies the allegations, has agreed to refund $5.2 million to 100,000 people to settle the charges. The CFPB said it will contact all customers who are affected by the settlement.
Officials at the CFPB allege that Student Financial Aid Services encouraged customers to upgrade their service at no additional cost, but charged annual fees of $67 to $85 for up to four years. The recurring charges were not clearly explained or disclosed when people paid for the service, according to the CFPB’s complaint.
Other customers who signed up for help online were automatically enrolled in a service with annual, recurring charges. The company buried an explanation of the billing in a 6,500-word write-up on the terms of its services, the CFPB said.
“Student Financial Aid Services made millions of dollars at the expense of consumers through its illegal recurring payment scheme,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray. “Our enforcement action will put money back in the pockets of consumers who were misled while seeking to access federal student aid.”
Until earlier this month, one of the company’s Web sites was called FAFSA.com. The Education Department asked the firm to stop using the domain name since the government was worried families would be confused.
Families can fill out the FAFSA for free online at www.fafsa.ed.gov. The FAFSA (short for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid) can make all of the difference in how families pay for college. The form must be filled out every year for the government and colleges to determine a student’s eligibility for grants, scholarships and loans.
In a statement, officials at Student Financial Aid Services said the company “did nothing illegal” and only settled the “unsubstantiated allegations to avoid protracted litigation.”
“The CFPB provided no evidence to support any of its claims regarding alleged illegal or unethical activity,” the company said. “[We are] not aware of a single consumer complaint to the CFPB. In fact, the company has received overwhelmingly positive feedback that our services have helped secure the financial aid necessary for more than 2.2 million students to pursue the dream of college.”
As a part of the settlement, the company has to pay the CFPB a penalty of $1. The agency said it is asking for so little because the financial aid company will have limited financial resources after it refunds customers. CFPB is also requiring the company to cancel all recurring, automatic charges.
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