Dozens of private companies lure struggling borrowers with promises of student debt relief. They charge fees to enroll borrowers in federal programs available for free on government websites.
While not all such companies are scams, bad actors are rampant. More than 130 student debt relief entities have histories that give consumers reason to be wary, according to a NerdWallet public records investigation. For instance, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has shuttered three companies that it labeled “scams.” The Federal Trade Commission has closed four companies that it says operated illegally.
Knowing the warning signs of a potentially harmful company can save consumers hundreds of dollars in unnecessary fees. Here are five red flags to look for and tips on what to do instead.
1. You have to pay upfront or monthly fees to get help
There’s nothing a debt relief company can do that you can’t do on your own. And it’s not inherently wrong for companies to charge for services you could do for free. Some people compare student debt relief services with tax preparation.
But it is illegal for companies offering student debt relief to collect fees over the phone before they lower or settle a customer’s loans.
The average student borrower who pays for loan help shells out $613, according to a 2016 survey by NerdWallet and Student Debt Crisis, a nonprofit higher education advocacy group.
What to do instead: Go to studentloans.gov to apply for an income-driven repayment plan, learn about government forgiveness plans or consolidate your federal loans — all for free. If you have private loans, contact your lender or servicer to discuss alternative repayment plans. Borrowers with federal or private loans can request a temporary pause on payments by asking for deferment or forbearance. If you take this route, though, interest will continue to accrue, increasing your loan balance.
If you want expert help in navigating your options, contact a student loan counselor certified by the National Foundation for Credit Counseling. Some nonprofit credit counseling agencies charge a one-time fee ranging from $50 to $200, but they offer trustworthy advice for a fraction of what you’d pay to a for-profit company.
2. The company promises immediate loan forgiveness
Be wary of companies that claim to help you get loan forgiveness. For instance, “Obama student loan forgiveness” programs don’t exist.
There are legitimate government programs, such as Public Service Loan Forgiveness, that can reduce or eliminate federal student loans after a certain amount of time. However, only some individuals qualify for the programs. For instance, borrowers must work full-time for the government or a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization and make full monthly payments for at least 10 years before earning forgiveness through PSLF. Borrowers on income-driven repayment plans can get their remaining loans forgiven after they make payments for 20 or 25 years, depending on the plan.
What to do instead: Use Federal Student Aid’s Repayment Estimator to see your monthly payment and projected loan forgiveness on various plans based on your income and family size.
If you work in public service, learn more about PSLF and check whether it’s a good option by contacting FedLoan Servicing, the federal loan servicer that administers the program on behalf of the Department of Education. Then, begin documenting your public service employment by completing a PSLF employment certification form.
3. A salesperson pressures you into signing up
Companies selling student debt relief services are typically staffed by sales representatives who earn commissions based on the number of customers they sign up. They may aim to instill a sense of urgency, saying things like, “Sign up now before it’s too late!”
But you do have time to make careful, well-researched decisions about your debt. There are no legitimate loan programs that are available only for short periods of time.
What to do instead: If you’re unsure about the legitimacy of a company, do more research before committing to anything. The NerdWallet Student Loan Watch List is a good place to start. It flags companies that consumers should be wary of, including those that have been investigated by state and federal authorities or have received a poor rating from the Better Business Bureau.
Also ask the company some questions like, “Are you affiliated with the Department of Education?” and “Can I do this on my own for free?” Honest companies will tell you that they’re not associated with the department and that you can apply for the help you need without paying for it.
Fraudulent student loan relief companies have been known to deceive borrowers by feigning relationships with the Department of Education. However, the agency contracts only with certain private student-loan servicers.
4. You’re asked to share sensitive personal information
Some companies may ask for borrowers to provide Federal Student Aid IDs or Social Security numbers. The data give the businesses the ability to sign into your account and make decisions on your behalf. Legitimate sources of student loan help, such as NFCC-affiliated nonprofit credit counseling agencies, do not ask for such information.
Additionally, some debt relief companies may ask borrowers to sign power of attorney agreements, which would allow the businesses to communicate with your loan servicer in your name. You’re not obligated to sign such documents; in fact, doing so may cause you to lose access to your student loan account.
What to do instead: Don’t reveal your FSA ID or Social Security number, or sign a power of attorney agreement. If you’ve already done so, contact your loan servicer, explain the situation and regain control of your account. Resume making payments directly to your loan servicer if you stopped doing so.
5. The company advertises on social media or shows up in search engine ads
Borrowers should automatically view student loan assistance companies that pay to advertise their services with skepticism, says Robyn Smith, an attorney with nonprofit legal advocacy group the National Consumer Law Center and a contributor to its 2013 report, “Searching for Relief: Desperate Borrowers and the Growing Student Loan Debt Relief Industry.” It usually means they’re in the business for profit, and since you never have to pay to consolidate your federal loans or to switch repayment plans, that’s a sign the services they offer could be a scheme to mislead you into paying for otherwise free assistance.
Former CFPB student loan ombudsman Rohit Chopra wrote in a 2015 letter warning Google that some companies may be misrepresenting themselves in online ads. “While we have warned consumers about these scams, we are concerned that unscrupulous companies may be using aggressive advertising through search products to lure distressed borrowers,” Chopra said.
Additionally, some companies use advertisements to create lists of potential customers to sell to other companies. These so-called lead generators often ask consumers to input personal information on web forms or call a phone number for more details. They then sell the data they collect to student debt relief companies.
What to do instead: Do research before responding to advertisements. Avoid providing personal information to online forms that aren’t applications for legitimate programs.
How to report a student loan scam
If you encounter a deceitful company, file complaints with the CFPB, the FTC and your state attorney general’s office. These agencies rely on consumer complaints to police harmful student loan companies and, when possible, get borrowers’ money back. For example, the Washington state attorney general’s office has returned more than $1.2 million to residents since November 2015.
Student debt relief companies have popped up because filling out the necessary paperwork can be complicated and time-consuming, Smith says. But if you arm yourself with the right information, you’ll know how to ask the government for free help and you won’t lose money on a scam that could be going toward your debt instead.
“If it sounds too good to be true,” Smith says, “it might be.”
Updated June 14, 2017.