MONTPELIER -- Vermont’s congressman, attorney general and main student finance entity warned consumers Friday to stay away from companies that promise to relieve student loan debt, calling them "predatory" and "scam artists."
"Student loan borrowers are being tricked into paying upfront fees, sometimes in excess of $1,000, to these types of private firms offering ‘debt relief’ that they could get for free," said Scott Giles, president of the Vermont Student Assistance Corp., a public nonprofit that helps students finance their educations.
He was joined by Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vermont, and Attorney General William Sorrell, who said his office was starting to crack down on the companies, most of which are doing business in the state without the required Vermont license.
The officials urged that anyone with questions or concerns about their student loan debt contact VSAC for advice.
VSAC released a list of 15 companies, some of whose websites say things like "help eliminate my student loans" and offer a 0 percent interest rate.
Sorrell said many of the companies make money by charging fees for their services, which would equate to a very high interest rate if applied, for example to a $10,000 student loan.
"I have directed my office to start investigating this problem," Sorrell said. "With students graduating and trying to find jobs and manage significant debt, we want to ensure their precious resources are not wasted on illegal, predatory and superfluous debt adjusters.
Many of the companies require customers to turn over their personal information, including Social Security numbers and passwords and personal identification numbers to their federal student loan accounts, Welch said.
A manager at one of the companies, Mike Fernandez of the Miami-based Student Aid Center, agreed that consumers could work with lenders to get their loans restructured. But he said his was one of a variety of fields in which some consumers prefer to hire outside expertise. "You can do your own taxes," or contract with a tax preparer, he noted.
Fernandez said his firm charges customers an upfront fee of $796, charged in four monthly installments of $199. "If we don’t save them a ton of money, we give them 100 percent of their money back," he said.
"We are definitely not a scam artist and we don’t rip anybody off," Fernandez said.