Student loans can sometimes feel like a scam. In January 2022, Navient, one of the largest student loan providers, reached a $1.85 billion settlement with 38 states and the District of Columbia following claims that it had made predatory student loans. The company will cancel the outstanding balance on $1.7 billion in subprime private student loan balances that are owed by over 66,000 borrowers nationwide. Navient had been embroiled in lawsuits and allegations from several states and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB).
While the worst student loan companies may appear to be scammers, there are also student loan forgiveness scams that borrowers may encounter. When loan holders seek help with some aspect of their loans, like reducing their balance or monthly payment, repaying their loans faster, stopping payments temporarily, or getting loans out of delinquent status, student loan scammers may make it difficult for them to get actual help.
Here are the worst and most common student loan scams you might encounter and how to identify them so you won’t get your money stolen or your credit trashed.
- You don’t have to pay anyone to make changes to your student loans.
- The Federal Department of Education provides and processes applications for income-driven repayment, consolidation, deferment, and forbearance for free. It also provides free guidance on how to complete the paperwork.
- Don’t believe companies that say they can reduce or eliminate your student loan debt, and definitely don’t give them any money.
- Ignore unsolicited requests for personal information that appear to be coming from student loan providers.
Scam #1: Filling Out Forms for a Fee
Do you want to lower your monthly student loan payment to an amount you can afford based on your income? You can pay someone to complete an income-based repayment plan request for you, but you can also fill out the application yourself. Income-based repayment application forms are available for free at the official federal student aid website, StudentAid.gov. The same is true of deferment and forbearance applications.
Paying for the Help You Need vs. Getting Scammed
If you choose to pay someone to complete these forms and you know you have the option to complete them for free, that’s fine. But some companies have taken advantage of borrowers who don’t understand their options. They’ve charged them for help without explaining the free alternative.
How would you feel if a tax prep company told you the only way to get your tax refund was to pay them to complete and file your tax return? The truth, of course, is that you can do your taxes yourself for free. You can even file your returns electronically for free if your income is below a certain level. If it’s not, you can file your return by mail for free.
Some people find the process confusing and time-consuming, so they hire a tax accountant, visit their local tax preparation store, or pay for tax software. They might find that the service pays for itself in the time and frustration it saves them and that they might even owe less in taxes—more than offsetting the tax prep fee they choose to pay—by getting professional help.
Free Repayment Options and Loan Consolidation
Likewise, legitimate services exist to help borrowers evaluate their student loan repayment options and apply for the program that best suits their needs. It is possible to make costly mistakes when repaying your student loans.
But to avoid getting scammed, it’s important to know that paying to apply for deferment, forbearance, or a different repayment plan is optional. Neither the federal government nor the private companies that service (collect payments) on student loans charge borrowers money to request different loan terms.
The same is true of federal student loan consolidation. You can complete and submit the student loan consolidation application yourself for free. Private student loan consolidation does not exist, but you may be able to combine several private student loans into one and lower your interest rate with a refinance.
Any loan fees associated with refinancing will not be charged until your loan is finalized and are usually deducted automatically from your loan proceeds. You don’t have to pay anything upfront.
Scam #2: Getting Loans Forgiven, Cancelled, Discharged, Reduced, or Eliminated for a Fee
Who wouldn’t love to have their debt erased? Unfortunately, the reality is that when you borrow money, you almost always have to repay it in full with interest. Even if you die, your estate may have to repay your debt (or any taxes on forgiven debt) before any assets you left behind can be distributed to your heirs.
Between the way that borrowing laws and tax laws are written, it’s safe to assume that if a company promises to negotiate a student loan debt settlement on your behalf, it’s a scam. If they say they can help you get your student loans discharged in bankruptcy, don’t believe it. They also can’t get your debt eliminated by representing you in a lawsuit against your student loan company.
Scams in this area typically involve telling the borrower that if they pay a large sum to some company, the company will get their loan discharged. In some cases, they might tell the borrower to send their student loan payments directly to the company instead of to their student loan servicer.
Either way, the result is likely to be that the company takes the borrower’s money and the borrower falls behind on their loan. They end up owing even more because of the additional interest and late fees that accrue, and their credit scores may drop when the loan servicer reports the late payments to the credit bureaus.
Public Service Loan Forgiveness (Not a Scam)
Public Service Loan Forgiveness may apply to certain federal loans in limited circumstances. This program has been rife with problems since the first borrowers became eligible for forgiveness in October 2017. Teacher loan forgiveness and Perkins loan cancellation may also be available to borrowers with eligible employment or volunteer service.
Federal student loans can only be discharged in the following circumstances:
- Total and permanent disability
- School closure
- False certification
- Unpaid refund
The forms are available for free at StudentAid.gov if one of these situations applies to you or a family member.
The American Rescue Plan passed by Congress and signed by President Biden in March 2021 includes a provision that student loan forgiveness issued between Jan. 1, 2021, and Dec. 31, 2025, will not be taxable to the recipient.
Scam #3: False Relief or Forgiveness Programs
The CARES Act, passed in March 2020, provided some relief to student loan borrowers in the form of zero interest on federal loans and a pause on payments until May 1, 2022. Keep in mind, though, that this relief measure did not forgive loans.
Beware of anyone claiming that they can get your loan erased as part of the CARES Act or “Biden loan forgiveness” or a “pandemic grant.” These are several common scams that have been circulating, according to Federal Student Aid, the country’s largest provider of student financial aid. Its site is part of the U.S. Department of Education.
Always be on high alert when someone asks for personal information, such as bank account details or your Social Security number (SSN), in order to gain access to a program.
A scammer may tell you that you have to act quickly before a federal program expires, for example, or enrollment is capped. Don't believe it.
Scam #4: Requesting Personal Details
The U.S. Department of Education will not contact you and ask for personal details such as your SSN, account number, date of birth, FSA ID number and password, address, or account balance. Nor will your student loan servicer or a government-contracted private collection agency. But scammers will.
They might try to fool you by asking you to confirm your information. That could sound like a legitimate request: They need to make sure that they’re actually talking to the borrower, right? If you find yourself in this situation, disengage. Don’t worry about being rude. End the interaction immediately. Your financial health could be at stake.
Think about it: If the entity requesting such information was reaching out to you, they would already have this information.
If a letter, email, or phone call you’ve received seems legitimate but you’re not sure, here’s how to check:
- Do not call the phone number listed on the letter or send information to the address it provides.
- Don’t reply to an email, call a phone number provided in an email, click on any links, or download any attachments.
- Tell a caller you’re not available right now and hang up.
Then, contact your student loan servicer directly using the information at the servicer’s official website. They’ll be able to look up your account and tell you whether the letter, email, or phone call you received was real or fake.
What could happen if you fall victim to this scam? Identity theft. Unauthorized changes to your student loan account. Damage to your credit. Way too many wasted hours cleaning up the mess.
The Bottom Line
To avoid student loan scams, stay away from companies that approach you or that show up in search engine ads. Even if you get a letter or phone call from someone who appears to know the details of your student loan, such as how much you owe, it could be a scam. Companies can purchase information about borrowers’ obligations and use that information in their marketing efforts.
Also, steer clear of any company that pressures you to act quickly. They’re trying to get your money before you have enough time to step back from the situation and think clearly about whether it's a good idea. Ignore their high-pressure tactics and firmly tell them, no thanks.