Originally posted by Jillian Berman on Marketwatch.com

If you’ve ever received a phone call, Facebook ad, Twitter notification or brochure in the mail offering help with student loans that seems too good to be true, you’re not alone.

Roughly 60% of a sample of more than 6,300 student loan borrowers said they’d seen advertisements for what consumer advocates have dubbed student debt relief scams

— companies that offer to help borrowers with their student loans for a fee, but typically provide services borrowers can access from the government for free. Nearly 45% of respondents said one of these companies had reached out to them directly, according to the survey conducted by personal finance site NerdWallet, and student loan advocacy group, Student Debt Crisis.

The responses came largely from people who subscribed to Student Debt Crisis’s email list, which is not a nationally representative sample, but the results provide some insight into a phenomenon increasingly concerning to policy makers. The more than 40 million student loan borrowers contending with $1.3 trillion in student loans have become a vulnerable population ripe for abuse. In response to borrowers’ struggles, the Obama administration expanded the programs borrowers can use to manage their debt, but scammers have seized on the programs as an opportunity to lure borrowers, advertising their services with government logos and phrases like “Obama student loan help.”

“There is confusion in the marketplace as to which programs relate to you, what you can apply for,” said Natalia Abrams, the executive director of Student Debt Crisis, a nonprofit organization dedicated to reforming how higher education loans are paid. “These debt relief companies prey on that confusion.”

Abrams said her organization first became aware of the companies a few years ago after one started using the logo of an earlier iteration of the Student Debt Crisis, called Forgive Student Loan Debt, as part of its advertisements and the organization had to send the company a cease and desist letter. They’ve heard from countless borrowers since about the firms, she said.

About 9% of the survey respondents said they’d actually paid for student debt relief services, spending an average of $613. In lawsuits, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and states attorneys general have accused various student debt relief companies of luring borrowers into paying for services they could get from the government for free and often not actually providing them or in some cases, keeping borrowers on the hook for a repeating charge illegally.

Borrowers of color were more likely to have used the services with 15% of black respondents, saying they paid a debt relief company compared with 9% of white respondents. While it’s hard to say exactly why this is the case it may be because black borrowers are more likely to take out loans, have higher balances and fewer resources to fall back on if the debt becomes unmanageable. Abrams also noted that predatory companies have a history of targeting minority communities.

“There’s an emotional element to this as well and you do want an answer right away,” said Nonso Maduka, NerdWallet’s student aid expert, of why borrowers of all types are lured by the companies. “Even if something doesn’t feel like the best path, if it feels like a quick path and quick solution that is something that you might entertain.”

Other experts have argued that sloppy student loan servicing also allows the companies to proliferate. Borrower advocates often deride servicers — the private companies hired by the government to collect student loan payments — for not providing borrowers with enough or the right information. Critics have noted that the prevalence of student loan relief scams is reminiscent of the mortgage crisis, where servicers failed to provide homeowners with necessary information and scammers popped up in their stead.

“When there is such a need for information and assistance and that’s not being provided by the entities that are supposed to be providing it, people want to turn somewhere else for help,” said Adam Minsky, a Boston-based lawyer who works with student loan borrowers. “These debt relief scams are feeding on the frustrations and the desperation of people.”

Though Minsky applauds government efforts to curb the problem, including the CFPB’s work attempting to shut down some of the outfits and cease and desist letters from the Department to these companies asking them to stop using the feds’ logo, he says the only way to truly stop the companies is through a “total overhaul of the federal student loan system and more regulations governing student loan servicing as a whole.”

“Right now we’re attacking the problem in the sense that we see a company pop off, they rip people off, we go after them and three other companies pop up in their place,” Minsky said. Survey respondents identified 200 different student loan relief companies that they had encountered.

The Department of Education is currently in the midst of revamping the student loan servicing system so that servicers are incentivized to work in borrowers’ best interest and so that borrowers can repay their loans through one government-branded portal.

“If we fix [the servicing system] then people won’t feel the need to turn to these companies,” Minsky said.

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