For student loan borrowers, unwanted robocalls can sometimes be more than just a nuisance. In fact, many are scams that are downright harassing and prey on already struggling borrowers.
If you have a phone, chances are you’ve experienced at least a few robocalls, which are prerecorded or autodialed. Navigating these calls can be tricky, because they are used by both legitimate entities and bad actors trying to impersonate them.
Robocalls can serve a purpose, and they are useful when employed correctly. Companies, schools and nonprofits sometimes use autodialers or prerecorded messages to reach people more efficiently with important messages.
For example, if your flight was canceled or if your college was opening on a delayed schedule due to inclement weather, you would want to know and may appreciate a robocall. If you have student loans, you may appreciate a reminder if you forgot to make a payment and you need to bring your account current to avoid the serious consequences of delinquency or default.
At the same time, robocalls have also been used to harass debtors with repetitious phone calls that annoy or abuse. These types of calls are increasingly used by scammers because the internet can be used to locate and contact many individuals cheaply and efficiently.
Robocalls about supposed debt reduction, including scams to reduce or eliminate student loan debt, are among fraud complaints reported in high numbers each year to the Federal Trade Commission. In fiscal year 2020, which includes months when much of the U.S. was shut down or slowed down due to the coronavirus pandemic, the FTC still received 2.8 million complaints about robocalls.
The Telephone Consumer Protection Act, which the U.S. Congress passed in 1991, is meant to protect consumers’ privacy and reduce the number of telemarketing calls and robocalls. The federal government recently updated the TCPA in an effort to further curb these types of invasive calls.
In general, the TCPA allows the use of autodialed calls and texts to cellphones if the consumer consents to receive them. If you are contacted with a robocall by a company you have never heard of, that should be a red flag.
To avoid telemarketing robocalls and texts, you have the right to add your phone numbers for free to the National Do Not Call Registry, which was created by the FTC. To do that, go to www.donotcall.gov or call 888-382-1222 from the number or numbers you wish to add.
Most federal student loan borrowers consent to calls from their student loan servicer – the company that handles billing and other services on behalf of the U.S. Department of Education – when they sign their master promissory note. You can opt out of these calls and texts later, but you should be aware that doing so could prevent you from receiving important messages from your servicer about your account in a timely manner.
The TCPA also permits calls by debt collectors when a loan is delinquent. Again, consumers have a right to opt out of these collections calls to their cellphone, but be aware that doing so may cause you to miss important communications about your student loan account. For example, calls are allowed during delinquency to assist debtors in determining whether alternative payment plans are an option before they default.
As for debt collection, the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, or FDCPA, says collectors can’t harass, oppress or abuse debtors or use unfair or deceptive practices. Phone calls before 8 a.m. and after 9 p.m. in your time zone, whether made using an autodialer or not, are not allowed unless you have provided and not withdrawn consent. You can sue a debt collector for violating the law.
If you believe a student loan debt collector is harassing you with calls or texts, you can submit a complaint with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau or the Federal Communications Commission’s Consumer Complaint Center, or contact your state’s attorney general.
The FCC is stepping up efforts to fight illegal robocalls. The commission’s acting chairwoman, Jessica Rosenworcel, announced a slew of initiatives in March, including issuing the largest robocall fine in FCC history; launching a Robocall Response Team; reaching out to the FTC, U.S. Department of Justice and National Association of State Attorneys General to revive antirobocall partnerships; and sending cease-and-desist letters to six voice providers accused of repeated violations of FCC guidelines, including illegal robocalls to student loan borrowers.
If you think fraud is involved, you also can file a complaint with the FTC, which houses the Bureau of Consumer Protection.
This month, the FTC announced that it was sending nearly $150,000 in refunds to student loan borrowers who got caught up in a debt relief scam and paid illegal upfront fees based on false promises to eliminate or reduce their student loan debt.
In fact, various types of consumers across the U.S. received more than $483 million in refunds in 2020, thanks to investigations and follow-up actions by the FTC. But in April of this year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the FTC does not have the authority to seek financial relief in federal court for harmed consumers and is prohibited from doing so in the future.
The FTC has asked Congress to pass legislation restoring that ability, contending that the court ruling will restrain its ability to settle cases efficiently on behalf of wronged consumers.
As a student loan borrower, you do not have to tolerate unwanted and harassing robocalls, nor should you. Knowing your rights and being aware of the ways that scammers use these types of calls to take advantage of borrowers can help you protect yourself and others.