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03 Sep

Beware of Scammers Trying to Capitalize on Student Loan Forgiveness

Shady callers are acting quickly on President Biden’s announcement last week to cancel up to $20,000 in federal student debt for millions of borrowers. As Americans await more details about the plan, these callers are already dialing consumers, misleadingly warning them that time is running out.

The debt cancellation program is providing grist for scammers seeking to separate people from their money, their personal information or both, consumer advocates say. The calls may be targeting student borrowers — or they may be fishing expeditions preying on consumers even if they don’t hold education debt.

“Scammers read the news, too,” said K. Michelle Grajales, a lawyer with the Federal Trade Commission.

In a voice mail message reviewed by The New York Times, a female caller claimed to be from “student support.” The person who received the call does not have student loans. But the caller said the individual was “prequalified” for “updated forgiveness,” before cautioning that “it does look like your status will expire soon.”

Mike Pierce, executive director of the Student Borrower Protection Center, an advocacy group, said he had received at least two calls in recent days, even though he holds no federal student loans. “They’re not wasting any time,” he said.

In fact, nefarious callers have had ample time to prepare, since talk of student loan forgiveness has been percolating since Mr. Biden proposed it during the 2020 presidential campaign. Payments on most federal student loans were first temporarily suspended in March 2020, early in the pandemic, by the Trump administration. Mr. Biden extended the pause several times, and payments are now scheduled to resume after Dec. 31.

Even before the president’s recent action on loan forgiveness, scams based on the premise of securing help with student debt have kept federal regulators busy. Scam callers use the existence of legitimate, but often confusing, federal programs that can reduce monthly payments or forgive student debt, like the public service loan forgiveness option, to trick borrowers into paying illegal fees or sharing sensitive information. The F.T.C. has received nearly 49,000 complaints about student loans in the first eight months of this year, and about two-thirds of those were related to student loan debt relief, including scam calls, the agency said.

“Student debt cancellation is unprecedented, but these tactics are not new,” said Andrea Matthews, adviser to Rohit Chopra, the director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

Both the consumer bureau and the F.T.C. have taken action against student debt relief companies that persuade borrowers to pay upfront for supposed assistance in reducing monthly payments or lowering their total debt.

In June, the bureau took action against the owner of a student debt relief company, accusing it of withdrawing hundreds of thousands of dollars from borrowers’ bank accounts without permission. Mr. Chopra said at the time that poor communication by servicers, the companies that collect payments for the loans, exacerbated the issue.

“When student loan servicers don’t provide clear and accurate information to borrowers,” he said in prepared remarks, “it sets the stage for scammers to swoop in.”

The F.T.C. announced on Aug. 18 that it was mailing refunds totaling about $822,000 to thousands of borrowers deceived in one such illegal debt-relief scheme.

The F.T.C. has warned consumers that they don’t need to pay to sign up for the debt cancellation program, the loan payment pause or a repayment plan tied to income. “Nobody can get you in early, help you jump the line or guarantee eligibility,” it said, adding that anyone who says he or she can, or tries to charge you, is a “liar” and a “scammer.”

Borrowers should know that there is no rush to do anything immediately. If a caller suggests that you will miss out by not acting right away, demands money to help you or requests information like your Social Security number or your federal student aid ID, that’s a red flag.

“When in doubt, don’t give information over the phone,” Ms. Grajales of the F.T.C. said.

Advocates for student loan borrowers recommend checking the Federal Student Aid website for official details about the debt cancellation program. The Times is also updating its information page about the Biden administration’s announcement periodically. And the Education Department offers tips online for avoiding student debt scams, whether they come by phone, email, or text.

Here are some questions and answers about calls targeting student borrowers.

Hang up and contact your student loan servicer directly, Mr. Pierce said. If you don’t know who your servicer is, check StudentAid.gov. If your loans don’t appear there, they are probably from private lenders and are ineligible for cancellation.

Scott Buchanan, executive director at the Student Loan Servicing Alliance, an industry group, said servicers generally didn’t contact borrowers by phone unless they missed a payment. That could change once the Education Department completes a new plan on student debt forgiveness — but borrowers should end a call if they are leery. “We won’t take offense,” he said.

You can report improper calls to the F.T.C., the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the office of your state’s attorney general.

About eight million borrowers may get cancellation relief automatically because the Education Department already has access to their income data. For everyone else, the White House says, a “simple” application will be available by early October. You can sign up to be notified when the application is available on the Education Department’s subscription page. The department did not respond to an email seeking comment.

No, the suspension through the end of this year is automatic. Payments won’t resume before January, according to the Federal Student Aid website.

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