The Federal Trade Commission said Friday that it has formed a task force with 12 state attorneys general to crack down on student debt relief scams.
The federal-state initiative, dubbed Operation Game of Loans, is responsible for five cases against companies, such as Student Debt Doctor and American Student Loan Consolidators, accused of misleading borrowers about their ability to lower student-loan payments or illegally charging upfront fees before providing the service. The task force, which includes law enforcement in Maryland and the District, has frozen the assets of the accused and obtained temporary restraining orders to bring their operations to a halt.
“Winter is coming for debt relief scams that prey on hard-working Americans struggling to pay back their student loans,” said Maureen K. Ohlhausen, FTC acting chairman, in a statement. “The FTC is proud to work with state partners to protect consumers from these scams, help them learn how to spot a scam, and let them know where to go for legitimate help.”
By law, 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. While there are reputable companies that are upfront about the limitations of their services, some are less forthright and dupe desperate borrowers into paying for services they never provide.
Take Student Debt Doctor, a Fort Lauderdale-based company that promised consumers loan forgiveness in five years or less in exchange for an upfront payment of $750 or more, according to the complaint filed in federal court. Prosecutors in Florida say the company falsified income, unemployment status and household size information on federal applications for income-driven repayment plans that can lower borrowers’ monthly bills. The company could not be reached for comment.
In California, the FTC found Student Debt Relief Group charging people as much as $1,000 to enroll in free federal student loan repayment programs. Their customers paid monthly fees that the company said would be used to pay down their debt, but the firm actually pocketed the money, according to the complaint. All told, the company, which could not be reached for comment, made at least $7.3 million off unsuspecting borrowers.
State attorneys general, including Illinois’ Lisa Madigan and D.C.’s Karl A. Racine, have been waging fights in the courts for the past few years to combat student debt relief scams. There is no definitive data tracking the number of student-debt-relief scams, yet government agencies say they have noticed a spike in complaints in the wake of the federal government’s expansion of repayment options and forgiveness plans. The FTC has said that some of the same companies accused of mortgage relief fraud have reinvented themselves as student debt relief advisers.
The federal agency is warning consumers to 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. Borrowers can apply for loan deferments, forbearance, repayment plans or discharges directly through the Education Department at no cost.
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