Student debt scams flourish with rise in robocalls, advocates say

College graduates across the country saddled with student debt have become prime targets for "bad actors" eager for a piece of the student loan industry.
Illustration of a person wading into a phone where hands holding overdue bills reach to grab the person.
Student borrowers are bombarded by daily robocalls to their cellphones from student loan servicers and companies offering debt relief.Anke Gladnick / for NBC News

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By Erik Ortiz

The crushing weight of Michelle Lannon's college debt — almost $200,000 in federal loans and $15,000 in a private loan — haunts her until she goes to sleep. When her cellphone rings with an unknown number, which happens daily, she tenses up.

"I keep telling myself: 'Why did I do this? Why did I go to college?'" said Lannon, 48, who graduated in 2007 and works as a patient advocate for a biotech company in San Diego.

In recent months, the collection practices used by Navient Corp., one of the nation's largest student-loan servicing companies with 12 million customers, has grown increasingly aggressive, she said: They called her sister; they called a number for her grandmother, who died a decade ago; they called a number for her father, who died three years ago; and they began calling her friend and housemate.

"I'm going to be dead, and they're going to be at my grave with their hand out saying, 'You owe us a payment,'" Lannon added.

Michelle Lannon of San Diego says her former college, ITT Technical Institute, put a student loan under her name without her permission.Courtesy Michelle Lannon

While she doesn't dispute owing money on her federal loans, she believes the private loan currently through Navient was set up "illegally" by ITT Technical Institute based on past accusations by the federal government about misconduct. Lannon earned an associate's degree in computer networking at ITT Tech, a for-profit college, before it closed in 2016 amid allegations of fraud and of steering students into predatory loans. Before the college filed for bankruptcy, school officials said those claims made during a government investigation were "without merit" and they intended to "vigorously defend ourselves against the charges."

But in the years since, the investigation has led to multimillion-dollar settlements without ITT executives admitting to any wrongdoing, paving the way for some students' debts to be forgiven depending on their lender. So far, Lannon hasn't qualified.

"I'm stuck now. Nobody cares," she said. "And all they want is their money."

Navient was unable to comment on the details about Lannon's case for privacy reasons, but said it has an online process for people to dispute a loan.

Lannon is emblematic of college graduates across the country saddled with student debt and prime targets for "bad actors" eager for a piece of the student loan industry and luring borrowers with a promise of action. While the use of robocalls, which deliver a prerecorded message to a person's phone or connect a caller with a live operator, aren't relegated to student debt collection, they are thriving: More than 11 million robocalls regarding student loans were made nationwide last month, appearing to more than double from a year earlier, according to the YouMail Robocall Index, which compiles robocalling data.

Navient, one of nine companies that are under contract with the Department of Education to manage federal student loans, was identified in more than 3.3 million of those robocalls last month.

Meanwhile, there have been a series of consumer complaints that underscore the larger turmoil within the student loan industry: More than 6,000 cases filed to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau last year involving the nation's three largest student loan servicers, more than 1,100 regarding Navient filed to the Federal Trade Commission in the last three months alone, and more than 150 filed to the Federal Communications Commission since January 2018 objecting to "harassing" robocalls and accusing Navient and other student loan or debt relief companies of "fraudulent" tactics.

Those lightly redacted complaints — obtained by NBC News through Freedom of Information Act requests — come as the nation's total student loan debt has surged to $1.5 trillion, setting off demands by Democratic lawmakers in Washington for an overhaul of the industry, state attorneys general to sue big lenders and state legislators to introduce a "student loan bill of rights" meant to help borrowers.

The FTC filed cases against 11 student loan debt relief companies accused of bilking consumers out of more than $148 million through marketing ploys and unmet expectations.

The Department of Education was criticized in February by its Office of Inspector General, which accused it of failing to adequately protect the nation's 44 million student borrowers and hold loan servicing companies accountable. The OIG's report said that more than 60 percent of complaints from January 2015 to September 2017 included examples of student loan servicers acting improperly and not providing students with all of their loan repayment options, leaving some to end up paying more than they should.

The Department of Education responded that it fundamentally disagrees with the "assertion that we do not have processes and procedures in place to ensure loan servicing vendors provide high-quality, compliant service to borrowers. That said, we also are continuously looking for ways to improve."

Student loan and debt relief companies accused of exploiting borrowers flourish because the "student debt crisis" flourishes, said Persis Yu, a staff attorney and director of the Student Loan Borrower Assistance Project at the National Consumer Law Center, a nonprofit specializing in consumer issues.

"The challenge is how to find a solution that is on a big enough scale that can actually prevent these companies from proliferating," Yu said. "Right now, it's a bit of a game of whack-a-mole."

Companies have a variety of tactics to ensnare student borrowers — and scare those who know them, she added.

The complaints made to the FCC include people who say they are called regularly by an automated message offering to help with their student loans and others who say they're contacted multiple times each day, even though they don't have an outstanding loan.

"I've been getting calls from Navient for my deceased nephew — same last name, but I've never co-signed for him," one person from California wrote to the FCC. "I tried to call them but get the same robostyle on their end. Unless I have a case # (I don't), I can't get a human."

A person from Tampa, Florida, wrote that their repeated requests to be placed on a Do Not Call registry went ignored: "The only thing I can think about doing at this point is changing my mobile phone number. Please help me with this. It's maddening."

The robocalls have thrived despite Navient being at the center of at least two separate class-action lawsuits for alleged unsolicited calls, agreeing to settle for up to $19.7 million in 2017 and another $2.5 million that was finalized this year. The first lawsuit dealt with people who said Navient called them, even though they had no loan with the company, while the second accused Navient of using automated dialers to get information about borrowers from third parties. In both, Navient said it would "vigorously" defend itself and denied all allegations of wrongdoing.

"Robocalls from these companies have only gotten worse," said Billy Howard, an attorney with The Consumer Protection Firm, a law firm in Tampa. "They're being emboldened by these little small settlements that they force people into. Litigation is just another day at the office to them."

In a letter sent to the FCC in 2017, a half-dozen consumer groups accused Navient of "harassing and abusing" borrowers. The company, formerly part of Sallie Mae, collects payments from borrowers on behalf of the federal government and other lenders.

Paul Hartwick, a Navient spokesman, said the company doesn't comment on pending litigation, but telephone calls remain "an important way to help struggling borrowers enroll in alternative repayment programs and help avoid defaults."

There could be some relief for unwanted calls after the FCC voted this month to make it easier for telecom companies to block robocalls by default and allow carriers to create tools that would help people avoid numbers that are not in their contact lists. Debt collection agencies and other companies whose business depends on reaching consumers have opposed such changes.

But consumer advocates say student borrowers need to be protected at all costs. Aside from the flood of robocalls, advocates are concerned about companies that offer to place student borrowers in payment relief programs in exchange for collecting fees.

Yu said these companies charge hundreds of dollars upfront and offer assurances to either lower or cap borrowers' monthly student loan payments, consolidate loans or determine if they're eligible for loan forgiveness.

According to the Department of Education's Office of Federal Student Aid, such companies are charging for services that they can't deliver or that borrowers can do on their own for free. The office has tweeted warnings and posted tips on how to identify student loan scams.

Feraldo Raymond paid about $400 to AmeriHelp, an Orlando, Florida-based company, after getting an email about its services last year. Instead of Raymond paying his loan to American Education Services directly, he said, he agreed to make payments to AmeriHelp at a lower price than his monthly student loan bill; meanwhile, AmeriHelp told him they would oversee the original loan.

But after a couple months, American Education Services contacted Raymond that he had missed payments on his student loan, which totals about $14,000.

His wife, Ivy Fussell-Raymond, said she called AmeriHelp for a refund, but they refused. "They were blaming us that we weren't returning their phone calls," she said.

She has since given up on trying to recover the money, adding that she doesn't know where to turn.

Raymond's experience is echoed in other complaints to the FTC about AmeriHelp, including by people who said they paid hundreds of dollars only to have no payments made toward their loans or their loans were unexpectedly transferred to another company.

Other complaints accuse AmeriHelp of engaging in robocalls, including offering consumers a reference number — sometimes the same one — and telling them to call back about "recent changes to your federal student loan." The company settled one lawsuit this year after a Texas man said he was called at least 12 times last fall with a promise that they "prequalified people to be forgiven up to 90 percent on their student loans."

At the bottom of its website, the company says in small type that it is a "document preparation service" and offers information about federal student loan programs, but "will not pay your student loans for you or on your behalf."

A representative who answered a phone at AmeriHelp told NBC News that the company "follows all state guidelines appointed by the attorney general." In an email, the company said it provides "document preparation" for those trying to consolidate their student loans and that student loan servicers are failing to disclose all the options for borrowers, "which has created a high rate of delinquency and default on loan repayments and exacerbated the national student debt crisis." The rep did not immediately return a request for comment about the Texas lawsuit.

Eileen Connor, the director of litigation at Harvard Law School's Project on Predatory Student Lending, said that the most vulnerable are being taken advantage of and that the Department of Education has been unable to crack down on "the most pernicious side of the student loan debt crisis."

"There's no cop on the beat that will be strong enough to fix the problem," Connor said.

Instead, she advocates that the industry move away from the current system of debt-financed higher education that has put millions of borrowers behind on their loans or in default, and others scraping by to even pay their rent or mortgage or save for retirement.

Student borrower advocates say the federal government must do a better job of helping people seeking student loan forgiveness. Department of Education data in 2018 revealed that less than 1 percent of people who applied for public service loan forgiveness were approved.

The Education Department has pointed to complex terms with the program created by Congress more than a decade ago as having a negative effect on eligibility. It now believes that with increased outreach in recent months and a push for more straightforward rules, the tide can turn.

The 2020 Democratic candidates for president have put the issue of student loans at the forefront of their campaigns, with some supporting the elimination of undergraduate tuition and fees at public colleges and universities, as well as helping those with existing debt to refinance their loans.

There's no cop on the beat that will be strong enough to fix the problem."

But any future overhaul does nothing currently for borrowers such as Lannon, the San Diego woman making $18 an hour and being called daily to repay her student loans at a rate of $2,000 per month. She has even thrown money at the private loan that she said ITT opened under her name — in an effort to prevent her wages from being garnished.

Her degree from the defunct school is "one very expensive piece of toilet paper," she added, and employers have told her to not even list it on her résumé. Her dream of using her college degrees for a career in education has been put on hold.

She's unsure if she will qualify to have any of her federal loan debts with ITT canceled as part of a 43-state class-action lawsuit settlement that was approved by a federal judge this month and comes after more than 18,000 former students said the college pressured them to accept so-called temporary credit loans that carried high interest rates and had to be paid back before they even graduated. ITT never commented on the allegations.

Meanwhile, Lannon is still getting emails, Facebook ads and phone calls about student debt relief programs.

"It's absolutely horrendous," she said. "I go to sleep every single night worrying about all the debt I'm in."