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Scammers who target Americans struggling to pay back student loans often find victims online, telling them they can get them a special deal on a renegotiated loan if they’ll just pay a large upfront fee.
Now the federal government is asking Facebook, Google and other large search engines for help.
On Monday, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) sent letters to Bing, Google and Yahoo asking them to keep watch for suspicious ads and search results that pop up on their sites when users type keywords like “student loan default,” “student loan forgiveness” and “Obama student loan relief.”
The letters from Rohit Chopra, the CFPB’s student loan ombudsman, say web analytics show stressed-out borrowers are searching on-line for help using those phrases. In the ads and search results that then appear on these advertiser-supported on-line platforms, scammers and dishonest businesses tell the borrowers that for a fee, they can help them enroll in a Department of Education renegotiation program – a program that is actually free.
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“While we have warned consumers about these scams we are concerned that unscrupulous companies may be using aggressive advertising through search products to lure distressed borrowers,” Chopra wrote.
In his letter, Chopra reminded the three companies that they already have policies in place to protect people from misleading advertisements and he urged them to “work closely” with federal and state agencies to ensure their search engine results are not being used by those “seeking to prey on the most vulnerable student loan borrowers.”
“By more closely monitoring advertising on key search terms and helping to drive traffic toward unbiased sources of information, your users will gain greater value from your search products and scammers will be less likely to flourish,” he wrote.
CFPB sent a similar letter to Facebook on Tuesday.
NBC News contacted all four companies and received statements from Microsoft and Google.
“Online scams such as fraudulent advertising are an industry-wide issue, and one that we take very seriously,” said a Microsoft spokesman in a statement. “We have an extensive process for filtering and monitoring Bing traffic against known fraudulent patterns to help detect and prevent against fraud and phishing techniques. We are dedicated to providing a trusted and reliable search experience for consumers and effective search advertising platform for our brand partners. We encourage customers to report any potential concerns at the Bing Help page. Advertising concerns can also be reported directly to our Bing Ads team on the Report Spam page.”
A Google spokesman said that the company “[prohibits] all forms of misrepresentation in ads, and have specific policies against ads that misrepresent financial services.”
“We work hard to keep our advertising ecosystem clean and last year alone we disabled more than 524 million ads. When we become aware of an ad that violates our policies, we’ll not only remove it, but in many cases remove the advertiser as well.”
Google also sent links to its ad policy against misrepresenting financial services and a blog post about how to stop bad ads.
The CFPB has a consumer advisory on its website that explains the warning signs of a student loan debt relief rip-off and what to do if you’re the victim of debt relief scam. It also explains what options you may have if you’ve fallen behind on your payments.