Student loan scams increase when payments are paused. What to know

Personal Finance

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The Biden administration in December again extended the moratorium on student loan payments and interest, meaning most people with federal loans are off the hook until May 1.

In the meantime, however, confusion about the pause, continued calls for broad-based forgiveness and changes to other aspects of student loan debt repayment give scammers increased opportunities to go after borrowers.

Many borrowers may be susceptible to scams due to the pandemic, which has hurt finances for millions. Most student loan borrowers said before the moratorium was extended that they were not prepared to resume payments even two years into the pandemic.

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“Scammers really prey on the financially vulnerable, and so with the pandemic, many people have been struggling financially and they are looking for financial relief,” said Kristen Evans, chief of the students and young consumers section at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. “This just creates the perfect breeding ground for scammers to take advantage of people.”

Changes to student loan servicers

Adding to potential confusion is that student loan servicers are set to change for some 16 million borrowers in the coming years.

“The uncertainty around who is my loan servicer does leave a bit of a scary gap in terms of scammers trying to take advantage,” said Bridget Haile, head of borrower success at Summer, a company that helps borrowers simplify and save on their student debt.

Three companies –Navientthe Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency (also known as FedLoan) and Granite State – all announced that they would no longer service loans with the federal government.

Borrowers who worked with those servicers will be transferred, but the timeline isn’t the same for everyone.

For example, FedLoan will continue to service some federal student loans through 2022 and will still administer the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program. Other borrowers who were repaying loans through the program may have already been transferred to MOHELA, another government-contracted loan servicer.

Navient will also transfer borrowers, but over time. Its contract with the government was extended through December of 2023. Granite State’s contract, meanwhile, ended in December, and the agency began transferring borrowers earlier in the year.

If you think your loan may be transferred, make sure you check in with your servicer now, said Haile.

“Make sure that all of your contact information is up-to-date at your current loan servicer,” she said. She added that borrowers should download all information from their current servicer, such as how many payments they’ve made, and watch carefully for instructions about their loans being transferred in the coming months.

Phone, text and email scams

Scammers have used multiple modes of contact to get in touch with borrowers, including texting, emailing, messaging on social media, calling and leaving voicemails. The Federal Trade Commission has released an example of some of the scam calls.

Weeks after applying for public service loan forgiveness, a federal program that forgives student loan debt for eligible workers, Kathleen Young, 30, got such a phone call.

The woman on the other end said she could help Young forgive her student debt. Young, an elementary school teacher in Palo Alto, California, assumed it was the U.S. Department of Education calling about the public service program.

She verified her Social Security number and gave the woman her bank account information to enroll, which she was told would consolidate her loans and forgive them after 60 payments (public service loan forgiveness requires 120 qualified payments.)They said she’d see her first payment taken from her bank account in about 10 days.

“Scammers really prey on the financially vulnerable, and so with the pandemic, many people have been struggling financially and they are looking for financial relief,” said ,
Kristen Evans
chief of the students and young consumers section at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau

Later, however, she realized something felt off. She looked up Guidance Alum, the company that called her, and saw that it isn’t associated with the Education Department and has multiple complaints, including to the Better Business Bureau, about its services.

“They got all this information from me, and I realized they [the Education Department] would never ask for that information on the phone,” said Young. Guidance Alum did not respond to CNBC’s request for comment.

She was able to close the bank account she gave to the company and sent Guidance Alum a formal cancellation request. Now, she has multiple services monitoring her Social Security number, which she’ll keep for the rest of her life, she said.

A few weeks later, she received an email from FedLoan Servicing, the servicer that runs the public service loan forgiveness program for the Department of Education, and was able to enroll there and start making payments towards forgiveness.

Still, she said she feels terrible about possibly falling for something that wasn’t necessarily on the up and up.  

“You know, they say hindsight is 20/20,” she said. “I didn’t think that could ever happen, but the red flags were there.”

How to spot and avoid scams

The best way to keep yourself from being scammed is prevention, according to Evans. People should have a high degree of skepticism right now, she added.

There are a few things that people should be on the lookout for if they get a phone call or letter about student loan forgiveness.

People shouldn’t think that just because someone has information about their student loans, such as the total balance, that it means they’re from a legit operation, according to Evans.

“We know that scammers have obtained credit reports illegally and then use that information,” she said.

Look for the name of the program that is being offered to you — some scams purport that they’re part of “Biden loan forgiveness” or “CARES Act loan forgiveness,” two programs that do not exist, said Evans.

If you’ve gotten a suspicious email, check to make sure that it’s being sent from an email address that ends in “.gov.”

Remember that federal programs do not require extra payment for loan forgiveness, so if someone is talking about charging you, it should be an immediate red flag, said Haile.

She also said to be extra careful about anyone asking for your personal information such as a Social Security number, federal student aid ID, credit card or bank account — that information should generally either be logged on a secure portal or given over the phone to the servicer.

If you think something may be a scam or have any doubts, the best course of action is to contact your servicer directly, both Haile and Evans said.

What to do if you’re a victim

SpiffyJ | E+ | Getty Images

If you’ve fallen victim to a scam and given away important financial information, you need to act immediately to protect yourself from further damage.

If you provided a scammer with credit card or bank account information, call your bank and card company right away to close your accounts or stop payments.

You should also call your student loan servicer, especially if you provided information such as your federal student aid ID, so they can monitor your account.  

You may also want to check your credit report to ensure there’s no suspicious activity, said Evans.

If you’ve gotten a suspicious phone call, voicemail or even a letter that you think is a scam, you don’t necessarily have to take immediate action if you didn’t respond or give out any personal information.

“You absolutely do not have to do anything, if you didn’t give them any information, you should be OK,” said Haile.

You can, however, report it. One option is to file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission notifying it of the potential scam. Another is to call your state attorney general.

Last, you may also want to check your credit score out of an abundance of caution, said Evans.

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