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Color of Money: Don't fall for student loan relief scams

Michelle Singletary on

The agency highlighted actions it has taken against a few companies recently. In one case, a Florida-based business, which falsely claimed it was affiliated with the Department of Education, allegedly bilked borrowers out of at least $11 million by promising to forgive their loans, lower payments and reduce interest rates. Another company allegedly took more than $20 million from consumers by charging illegal upfront fees of up to $1,000.

Under the Telemarking Sales Rule, companies offering debt-relief services cannot charge upfront fees. It's illegal to collect money from customers before the company has been able to settle or reduce their debts.

I get it. The debt is overwhelming for many borrowers, and that makes them susceptible to debt-relief scams. The CFPB says more than 1.2 million borrowers defaulted in 2016.

One person I was working with through my church financial ministry panicked about the amount of student loans she's carrying. She agreed to pay a debt-relief company $1,600. When I found out about it, I asked to see her contract.

I was incredulous. Basically, all the company was going to do is explore the federal repayment programs. Her contract literally said they would do this by "using publicly available information" found on the student aid website run by the Department of Education (DOE).

Then it promised to "secure documentation on behalf of the client to apply for the available program or programs through the DOE" and "maintain the client's file throughout the duration of the DOE repayment obligation."

There were many red flags in the contract, including asking that the woman provide her Federal Student Aid Identification (FSA ID), which is the username and password used to log on to DOE websites. You should not give this information to anyone. Thankfully, the woman told me about the contract in time for her to back out of the arrangement.

While there are legitimate companies who offer services to help you navigate repayment options, why pay for something that you can do for yourself -- for free -- if you're already in debt?

If you've got a federal loan and need guidance, go to StudentAid.gov/repay -- the same place the debt-relief companies go -- for free information about repayment and forgiveness programs. Check out ftc.gov for tips on how to spot a student loan debt relief scam.

This coming winter, scammers will on the prowl for new victims as a new crop of borrowers begin their student loan payments, after having had a six-month grace period following their spring graduations from college.

If you've got student loans, don't let your desperation for relief lure you into falling for a scam.

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Readers can write to Michelle Singletary c/o The Washington Post, 1301 K St., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20071. Her email address is michelle.singletary@washpost.com. Follow her on Twitter (@SingletaryM) or Facebook (www.facebook.com/MichelleSingletary). Comments and questions are welcome, but due to the volume of mail, personal responses may not be possible. Please also note comments or questions may be used in a future column, with the writer's name, unless a specific request to do otherwise is indicated.

(c) 2017, Washington Post Writers Group

MICHELLE SINGLETARY COLUMN for October 18, 2017Page 2

 

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