Polly Williams, a single mother who had recently lost her job, was desperate to lower the payments on her $23,000 in student loans. So last June, she called one of the many companies advertising debt relief online.
For a $250 fee, the University of One, now known as Student Consulting Group, offered to help. To come up with the money, Williams skipped an electric bill and lost power, forcing her to throw out $150 of food in her refrigerator, she said.
Williams could have avoided the fee because the government offers borrower assistance programs for free. Still, a growing student-loan debt-relief industry is profiting from consumers’ confusion and desperation, charging as much as $1,600 to sign them up for these repayment plans, according to a report released last month by the Boston-based National Consumer Law Center, a nonprofit advocacy and research group.
“It’s disgusting, it really is,” said Williams, 54, who earns $26,000 a year as an executive assistant for a Cleveland nonprofit helping the terminally ill. “I can only imagine how many other people they are taking advantage of.”
Such companies are proliferating because borrowers are buckling under the weight of student loans, which now total $1 trillion, exceeding all other consumer debt aside from mortgages. Former students are also struggling to navigate the government’s often complicated assistance programs. Student loans are among the most onerous forms of debt because they can rarely be canceled through bankruptcy.
After the housing bubble burst, similar outfits targeted consumers facing foreclosure and those behind on their credit cards, leading state and federal regulators to crack down on abuses.
Student-loan debt relief companies say they are comparable to organizations that help taxpayers file their returns – something customers could also do for free.
“Student loans are one of the biggest debts in America,” Scott Klein, vice president and managing partner of Student Consulting Group, said in a phone interview. “We saw the opportunity to get involved in this process and try to help every single person out that we can.”
Student Consulting Group, based in Tampa, Fla., typically charges a fee equal to 1 percent of the defaulted loan amount, with prices varying depending on the work required to get a borrower back on track, Klein said. The maximum cost is $1,500, he said. Its website discloses that the government offers free help, company officials said.
The Better Business Bureau of West Florida last July revoked Student Consulting Group’s accreditation. The bureau listed 37 complaints in the past three years, noting a pattern of allegations that the company received payment for services it didn’t provide, according to a report from the organization.
Williams, who filed a Better Business Bureau complaint, said the company charged her but didn’t come up with a better payment plan.
On her own, Williams got in touch with a debt-collection company working for the Education Department, she said. Williams spent 10 minutes filling out forms to sign up for a new plan, which reduced her monthly outlays to $8 from $136, she said.
Student Consulting Group disputes her account, saying her lower payments resulted directly from its efforts.
“She hired us to do a negotiation on a loan,” Klein said. “We did a negotiation.”
The Better Business Bureau complaints represent a small fraction of Student Consulting Group’s business of about 10,000 customers, Klein said. The company told the bureau that customers can experience service delays when they don’t disclose full details of their financial condition.
The government has an array of free borrower-assistance programs. Former students can temporarily stop payments or make smaller ones because of hardships, such as an illness or job loss. Borrowers can sign up for plans that tie payments to their incomes and the size of their families. In some cases, over time, the loans can be forgiven. Former students can consolidate multiple loans into a single debt with one payment.
Consumers often find it difficult to sign up for the government programs because they are “unnecessarily complex,” and the government confronts them with “an impenetrable bureaucracy,” according to the National Consumer Law Center’s report.
Companies take advantage of those shortcomings and mischaracterize government programs as their own, said Deanne Loonin, a law-center attorney and author of the report, which calls for stepped-up federal and state regulatory enforcement.
The U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has heard from borrowers who say that companies are marketing special plans that can save thousands of dollars in loan payments, said Rohit Chopra, the agency’s student-loan ombudsman.
“It is not a special deal,” Chopra said. “It’s often a program they are entitled to by law.”
The law center report cites the website of a company called Student Loan Relief, based in Dallas, which says it has “developed programs that will assist nearly every one of the 40 million Americans that currently carry student loan debt.”
Finding help from the government “can be a daunting task for those of us without Ph.D.’s in Law,” according to the website. Only “in the rare instance” can a borrower “locate a program and comply with requirements to participate.”
Student Loan Relief’s programs are unique because they are packages of government programs, said Jason Spencer, its chief executive officer.
“There’s help out there for everyone, but no one knows about it,” Spencer said.
The company charges no more than $46 for its services, and nothing upfront, and plans to become a nonprofit, Spencer said. He makes $2,000 a month for leading the company, he said.
The Education Department “does not have any authority over those private entities” and in the last year introduced studentaid.gov, “a comprehensive site with many tools and resources available to borrowers at no cost,” said Daren Briscoe, an agency spokesman.
In September, the department said student-loan defaults had reached the highest level in 14 years. About 5.7 million borrowers were in default on $77.4 billion worth of student loans last year.