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Student debt ‘help’ is often abusive, officials say

NEW YORK — Student loan debt hovers at more than $1 trillion, a threefold surge from a decade ago, and a record number of college students who graduated as the financial system nearly imploded have an average debt load of more than $20,000.

More than half of recent graduates are unemployed. And if they do have a job, it is probably a low-paying one that does not require that expensive college degree. Some Americans, including baby boomers whose savings were devastated by the financial crisis, are still struggling to pay off their student loans well into their 50s.

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For the debt settlement industry, all this means a tantalizing gold mine of new customers.

“Your entire student loan can be forgiven,” Broadsword Student Advantage of Carrollton, Texas, boasts in radio ads.

Debt settlement companies, which offer to help borrowers lower monthly loan payments for a hefty upfront fee, have long been fraught with problems. But federal and state regulators are spotting new instances of abuse as the companies shift from their traditional targets — credit card and mortgage debt — to zero in on student loans.

The companies are coming under fire for potentially questionable tactics. On Monday, Illinois is expected to become the first state to bring legal action against debt settlement companies based on student loan practices, contending in two lawsuits that Broadsword Student Advantage and First American Tax Defense duped vulnerable borrowers into paying for help that never arrived.

In her suit against the companies and their operators, Lisa Madigan, the Illinois attorney general, contends the businesses lured borrowers into paying hundreds of dollars upfront, and in the case of Broadsword, $49.99 a month after that, according to copies of the lawsuits reviewed by The New York Times. The companies often misled customers about those fees, according to the suits, and in some instances feigned affiliation with federal relief programs.

In a particularly cruel twist, Madigan said, the companies sometimes charged customers for debt assistance that they could have received free from the Education Department.

“It’s just, unfortunately, the latest scam on the largest group of people who are struggling with the most debt,” Madigan said in an interview last week.

Representatives of the companies could not be reached for comment.

Even before the Illinois action, borrowers across the nation lodged hundreds of thousands of complaints with the Federal Trade Commission about debt settlement and debt collection companies.

As the industry has ballooned, so too have the complaints of misleading or outright abusive tactics. In 2013, for example, the number of complaints about the tactics reached 204,644, up about 10 percent from two years earlier. The agency has sued several of what it calls bogus credit-related services that charged distressed borrowers hundreds or thousands of dollars, sometimes without their permission.

The allure of the student debt relief firms reflects a growing crisis, regulators say, as students take on more debt they simply cannot repay.

The signs of strain are clear. Of the $1.2 trillion dollars in outstanding student loan debt in the nation, an estimated 7 million Americans have defaulted on a total of $100 billion, with tens of thousands more borrowers defaulting each month, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

Debt settlement firms gained steam after the mortgage crisis, when millions of US homeowners were left owing far more than their homes were worth. The firms singled out desperate homeowners and promised to help them avert foreclosure, according to interviews with state and federal regulators.

In a typical arrangement, borrowers are told to send their mortgage payments to debt settlement companies rather than lenders. By withholding payments, the companies promise, the borrowers will coax the lenders into settling for less.

The problem, the officials say, is that those promises rarely come through. Not only do most consumers end up with huge debts, but they severely hurt their credit in the process.

Now the debt settlement companies are repositioning themselves to appeal to people struggling with student loan debt, according to interviews with lawyers and regulators.

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