Here at Finn Law Group, we’ve had significant success in protecting the rights of our clients from companies who use unfair and deceptive trade practices against consumers. While much of our focus is concentrated around timeshare and real estate disputes, we’re always interested in learning about other trends in the world of consumer protection.
We recently came across one article covering such a topic that we had to share here.
“Inside the ‘Obama’s Student Loan Forgiveness’ Scams,” by Katie Knibbs of The Ringer, points to a startling online trend: Several shady organizations are using the names and likenesses of famous people to lure in consumers eager to relieve themselves of the burdens of student loan debt.
As Knibbs writes:
“When schools use misleading advertising to entice people to take out loans they can’t afford and servicers like Navient fail to help people pay, it helps grow a vulnerable population. In 2015, one in six people with student loans from the federal government were in default, according to The Wall Street Journal. That’s around 3.6 million people desperate for a solution to mounting debt. These are the people targeted by brazen “Obama student loan forgiveness” crews.
These kinds of ads use generic, benevolent-sounding names like College Education Services and Student Aid Institute to sound legitimate, but in reality they are often ramshackle operations designed to disappear when they’re scrutinized. Several debt experts I spoke with characterized them as “fly-by-night.” The phrase “whack-a-mole” was also used repeatedly, since many of the companies are small operations that simply declare bankruptcy, change their names, and start over when complaints roll in, making them difficult to catch and permanently stop. It’s stand-out villainy in an industry rife with bad guys.”
The parameters of this villainy? As The Ringer explains:
“There are a few different models of the “Obama’s student loan forgiveness” ploy and other too-good-to-be-true gambits. Some of these companies convince students to pay them to act as superfluous middlemen, and charge steep payments to do what any student can do for free. In those cases, the companies do technically provide a document-processing service, but their service is an unnecessary one, since they charge money to “process paperwork” that people can fill out for free online. Meanwhile, other companies demand upfront or monthly payments in exchange for help in lowering interest rates. But all they do is place loans into temporary forbearance, which means loans are postponed and students don’t have to pay for a set time period. This creates the illusion that the company has made things easier, but in reality, they have only delayed payments for a few months.
“Other companies just take the money and disappear. These companies act illegally in a variety of ways, including “charging illegal advance fees before providing any services, deceiving customers about the costs of their services, falsely promising lower monthly payments, falsely claiming quick relief from default or garnishment, and falsely representing an affiliation with the U.S. Department of Education,” a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau spokesperson told The Ringer.
In all cases, the companies obscure the fact that they exist purely to profit. They take advantage of confusing federal loan repayment and consolidation plans, and how little [student loan companies] do to help people in need.”
To regular readers of this blog, these scam scenarios should sound all too familiar – they’re the exact same poisonous behaviors that have become part and parcel of the timeshare secondary market. Desperate consumers, strapped for cash and saddled by a growing mountain of debt – in the case of timeshares, due to interest payments and annual maintenance fees, which tend to rise year over year – turn to any solution they can, often to the one that first presents itself over the internet.
Even the machinations of the schemes themselves are familiar enough to send a chill up the spine: So-called timeshare relief and redemption companies employ many of same borderline-fraudulent tactics as the student loan relief schemes described above, from working as unnecessary middlemen, to charging for services that a consumer could pursue for free, to offering protections that can truly only come from retaining an attorney, to inconspicuously disappearing after upfront fees get paid.
And in both cases, these schemers and their underhanded tactics are emboldened to act thanks to a lack of oversight and concern from the major players in their industries. As Knibbs writes, “this rotten cottage industry popped up because the official student loan industry gave it every opportunity to do so.” Similarly, we’ve written before about major resort developers’ systematic disinterest in promoting a robust secondary market for timeshare ownership. If these powerful, influential actors had more concern for the needs and desires of their customers, consumers and the industry as a whole could benefit at the same time. Instead? Crickets.
Rather than relying on the industry that created these conditions, consumers must turn to outside help – to the BBB, to the CFPB, and to local law enforcement and consumer protection agencies – for any inkling of justice.
For much more insight on this fascinating consumer protection story – including its strange links to B-list Instagram celebrities – we encourage you to read the rest of the Ringer article here.
Led by Attorney Michael D. Finn with 50 years of experience, the Finn Law Group is a consumer protection firm specializing in timeshare law. Our lawyers understand vacation ownership as well as the many pitfalls of the secondary market of timeshare resales. If you feel you have been victimized or misled by a timeshare company, contact our offices for a free consultation. Know your rights as a consumer and don’t hesitate to drop us a line with any questions or concerns.