Student loan forgiveness: 4 tips for avoiding scams while waiting on relief

Borrowers have been in hurry-up-and-wait mode since President Joe Biden announced a sweeping student loan forgiveness plan in August.

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Biden’s plan would allow borrowers who make less than $125,000 a year and have federally-backed loans to have up to $10,000 of student debt forgiven. For those who had Pell Grants, an additional $10,000 of debt would be forgiven.

As anxious borrowers await instructions, however, on how best to proceed with discharging at least a portion of their debts before student loan payments resume in January, opportunistic scammers have seen their opening.

“It’s a ripe environment for scammers to really prey on that kind of desperation,” Katie Paul, director of the Tech Transparency Project, or TTP, a nonprofit organization that monitors tech companies, told NPR.

According to a TTP report released in July, more than one in 10 Google ads for searches on student loan forgiveness prior to Biden’s forgiveness announcement were fraudulent, and the bogus communications preying on desperate borrowers have anecdotally skyrocketed in the past month, with borrowers inundated with scam text messages, phone calls and emails, the news outlet reported.

Kevin Roundy, senior technical director of the internet security company NortonLifeLock in Culver City, California, told the Los Angeles Times that he has seen multiple scams directed at borrowers searching for loan-forgiveness guidance online. The aim, he said, is two-fold: Get borrowers to sign up for a service that will cost them money or convince them to refinance their debt into a new, privately issued loan.

A red flag, he cautioned, is when scammers attempt to persuade borrowers to ignore the advice of their student loan servicer or even bypass that servicer completely, offering to shepherd the debt forgiveness application straight to the U.S. Department of Education Department, the Times reported.

Don’t fall for it.

Education Secretary Miguel Cardona told NPR that he is aware that “there are bad actors out there” and offered the following, simple advice to anxious borrowers: “Go to our website studentaid.gov/debtrelief to get information, and don’t go anywhere else. Don’t open up those emails. Don’t.”

The reality, Roundy told the Times, is there is no better deal to be had because privately issued loans that the scammers may convince borrowers to undertake – the selling points of which are lower monthly payments – are not eligible for the debt forgiveness plan unveiled in August.

“(Scammers are) trying to make it sound like they’re cutting out the middleman,” when they are actually trying to insert themselves as said middleman, the newspaper reported.

Meanwhile, recent scam warnings have proliferated nationwide.

Gov. Kathy Hochul issued a direct warning to New Yorkers on Aug. 16, telling them to “remain vigilant and stay informed to stop these bad actors in their tracks,” while Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum jumped right to the crux of the anxiety.

“You don’t need to pay anybody to sign up for the new loan forgiveness program — or the payment pause. Nobody can get you in early, help you jump the line or guarantee eligibility. Anybody who says they can or tries to charge you money, is a scammer,” Rosenblum said in a Sept. 22 warning issued to borrowers across Oregon.

The most alarming red flag, however, is when a site asks borrowers for their Federal Student Aid username and password, a request the Education Department and its partners will never make, the Times reported.

The newspaper offered the following tips to avoid getting suckered:

  • There is no rush to apply. The Education Department is expected to make the application forms available online in early October, and you can sign up to be notified by email when the forms are available. Applications require an account at studentaid.gov to complete, and borrowers should make certain that their contact information and payment histories are correct. According to the Education Department, if you receive communications with any of the following high-pressure, time-sensitive language, it’s a scam:
    • “Act immediately to qualify for student loan forgiveness before the program is discontinued.”
    • “Your student loans may qualify for complete discharge. Enrollments are first come, first served.”
    • “Student alerts: Your student loan is flagged for forgiveness pending verification. Call now!”
  • Zero payment is required. Anyone who offers to help process loan forgiveness applications for a fee is running a scam. Period.
  • Be suspicious of anyone asking for sensitive financial information. The only way scammers can gain access to either your student loan information or your bank account is if you provide it to them. Just don’t do it.
  • Remain vigilant, skeptical. Scammers often promise immediate action and total debt forgiveness, but neither of those outcomes is within their power. Several government programs do exist, however, that offer to forgive debt after 10 to 25 years of regular monthly payments.