Beware Those Official-Looking Student Loan Offers
Jessica Coulter, a first-year law student at Regent University in Virginia Beach, Va., worried when she started getting letters marked "confidential" and "open immediately" in the mail shortly after taking out student loans. Because they looked official and time-sensitive, she assumed they were from her loan company. When she opened them, she found information about loan payment programs, some of which suggested immediate deposits. "I got really scared. I thought the whole point of loans was that you don't pay them back for three years," she says.
After consulting classmates with student loans, Coulter learned that the letters were just advertisements. Now, they quickly go from her mailbox to the trash. But she is hardly the only one fooled by such letters.
According to student loan borrowers and consumer advocates, loan companiesincluding legitimate onesincreasingly send solicitations that resemble actual loan documents or government-issued letters. "Direct-to-consumer marketing for student loans has exploded. ... We're seeing the propagation of these types of aggressive, sometimes misleading mailings," says Luke Swarthout, higher education associate for U.S. PIRG, a public interest advocacy group.
Rebecca Thompson, legislative director for the U.S. Student Association, says students are especially vulnerable to such solicitations. "It's confusing for the average student .... especially if it is the first time they have ever taken out a loan," she says, adding that many students don't know which loan company they are actually using. (Thompson, 23, says that she didn't know the source of her own loans until she started working for USSA.)
Collegiate Funding Services, part of JPMorgan Chase, sends solicitations marked "final attempt" in red on the envelope. The letter inside says it is from the "Student Loan Department" and bears an insignia with a book and leaves inside a circle within a circle. The federal Education Department's insignia is a tree within a circle inside a circle.
Swarthout expressed concern that such an insignia could be confused with that of the Department of Education. He also takes umbrage with the first sentence of the letter, which reads, "We're writing to make sure you are aware that if you don't contact us now, you could end up paying significantly more on your monthly student loan payments than necessary."
While Swarthout acknowledges that the statement could be true, because the company offers loan consolidation services, he says consumers could interpret it as meaning they have to call or their current rates could go up. "Some lenders are trying to gain volume through deceptive tactics that don't help the borrower better understand or weigh their options," he says.
Greg Hassell, spokesman for Collegiate Funding Services, says that the letter is not deceptive and that there is no suggestion that it is from the government. "It's clear who it's from and what it's for," he says.
Graduate Loan Associates, a San Diego-based loan consolidation company, also stamps its letters with a circle-within-a-circle insignia that says, "Department of Student Finance." (Graduate Loan Associates did not respond to repeated requests for comment.) Letters from Class One Associates, also in San Diego, are stamped with a spread-winged eagle, a symbol often associated with the U.S. government. (The company said no one was available to comment.)