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Student loan scams are on the rise as the pause on payments is due to expire

Scammers usually rely on phone calls to try to con their victims.
Chelsea Beck
/
NPR
Scammers usually rely on phone calls to try to con their victims.

Like millions of Americans, Emmy Ross has a bunch of student debt. So when she started getting phone calls from people offering to help have the loans forgiven, she was immediately interested.

The problem? They were scammers asking for things such as her account details or credit card number.

Ross figured out the con pretty quickly. But her mom, Jing Su, was also getting the calls.

"I thought it was serious because they are so persistent," Jing Su said. "I said, 'I got a call again. So what is the story?' You know?"

Ross tried to tell her mom they weren't real.

"Every time we would get on the phone, she'd be like, 'Oh, did you call the student loan people yet?' And every time, I'd be like, 'Mom, it's not real. It's a scam,' " Ross said.

Thankfully, the callers didn't get any information or payment details out of Ross or her mom. But not everyone has been so lucky.

This winter, the Federal Trade Commission warned about an increase in student loan scams. Those scams prey on confusion. President Biden said during his campaign that he was open to forgiving some student debt, but that hasn't happened yet.

In the meantime, the federal government put federal student loan payments on pause during the pandemic. With that pause now set to expire at the beginning of May, people are anxious and scammers are swooping in.

They're promising to reduce payments or even cancel student debt entirely — if you give them your credit card number. They use social media, text messages and phone calls. And the scripts are pretty convincing.

One voice message says: "Hi, this is Shay with SLA Servicing. We're in the process of pre-enrollment for all loan forgiveness. It's going to be a bit more challenging as deadlines come...."

Some calls even sound like they're coming directly from the government. Like this one:

"This message is from the Department of Education. All programs for student loan forgiveness will be stopped immediately. In order for you to qualify, you must apply within the next 24 hours..."

Andrea Matthews at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau said con artists were able to flourish because of a lack of information.

"When people can't get clear information that they need from their student loan servicers, they can become more susceptible to scammers," she said.

"If consumers had an easy, convenient channel of communication to their servicers and they knew that if they had any question at all, they'd be able to call up their servicer and be able to get accurate, actionable information ... then I think consumers would be in a far less vulnerable position than they are in right now."

Scams rely on embarrassment and shame from their victims.
Issouf Sanogo / AFP via Getty Images
/
AFP via Getty Images
Scams rely on embarrassment and shame from their victims.

How to avoid scams — and what to do if you get conned

So if you do get a call and are concerned it could be a scam, what are some of the red flags you should listen for?

Matthews said a legitimate servicer will never ask you for your username or password. She also said servicers already had consumers' basic personal information, so they shouldn't be calling and asking for that, either.

But what do you do if you have already taken the bait? The first thing to remember is you're not alone. Scams like this rely on a certain degree of embarrassment and shame from their victims so they don't report it when it happens.

"If you've given payment information, you want to call your bank and put a hold on that account immediately so that scammers are not able to extract more payments from you," Matthews said.

And the next call should be to your student loan servicer, she said. Tell them what happened and they can give you some next steps.

Matthews added that you can also submit a complaint to your state attorney general, the Federal Trade Commission, or to her office at the CFPB.

Financial security can be a very emotional subject. For Emmy Ross' mom, Jing Su, the idea that her daughter could find some sort of debt relief was so exciting that she jumped at the opportunity.

"Because I have no ability to help to pay for it, either. So if I hear of any programs that can help her to reduce the debt, that's what grabbed my attention," she said.

Ross said the whole saga did put a bit of a strain on their relationship, but she didn't blame her mom for finding these offers so attractive. Ross admitted that anyone promising to help would have her attention, too, at least at first. And she's not the only one.

"I think for millennials and probably Gen Zs at this point, it is a struggle — period," she said. "We're like, 'Oh, my God, please, any kind of relief at all whatsoever. Because it's hard."

The Department of Education estimates that about 45 million people have outstanding student loans, totaling more than $1.5 trillion. The mere idea of debt forgiveness is making a lot of these people hopeful. And maybe more likely to return a scammer's phone call.

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