Millions of Americans dream of the day they'll be free from student loan debt, but for so many, it feels like that day will never come.
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Even with President Barack Obama's recent executive order capping student loan payments at 10% of monthly income, former college students across the nation struggle to afford their loan bills, and many would jump at the chance to reduce their education debt or eliminate it entirely.
Scammers and legitimate companies sense the desperation among student loan borrowers and try to work it to their advantage, meaning debtors have more than their loan payments to worry about. When you come across a program or opportunity that promises to take a chunk out of your student debt, try to not let your excitement supersede your common sense: Not all student loan relief is in your best interest (or even real). Here are three things to watch out for as you look for ways to conquer your student loans.
1. Get-Out-of-Debt Help
If someone wants you to pay them to help you get out of debt, think twice before writing a check.
Illinois recently became the first state to file suit against companies trying to exploit struggling borrowers with student loan debt-relief scams. Debt-relief services aren't all scams, but there's an emerging trend of people using debt relief as a way to fleece already struggling student loan borrowers.
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On July 14, Illinois State Attorney General Lisa Madigan filed suit against First American Tax Defense of Chicago and Broadsword Student Advantage of Frisco, Texas, for alleged predatory practices. Madigan accused the companies of charging consumers hundreds of dollars in upfront fees in order to reduce or eliminate their student loan debt, but the relief never materialized.
"The companies sought to scam vulnerable people into paying as much as $1,200 upfront for bogus services, including assistance enrolling in a fake 'Obama forgiveness program,' or for government services that are already free of charge," Madigan alleges, according to a news release from her office.
2. Student Loan Giveaways
Last year, Sallie Mae was involved in two student loan sweepstakes, which promised to repay or cover a portion of borrowers' outstanding loans: One of these giveaways was real, the other wasn't.
The false one was pretty easy to spot, but people still fell for it. A bunch of fake Sallie Mae Instagram accounts surfaced, telling people to share their email addresses in order to have their loans forgiven. It was an attempt to get people to hand over their email accounts, because if a hacker can access your email, they're essentially getting a hold of the master key to your life.
The real one was a Facebook contest in which borrowers could enter to win a drawing that would give them $10,000 toward student loan repayment. People earned extra entries by sharing loan repayment tips and sharing the contest with friends. It's great Sallie Mae decided to give away some student loan relief, and borrowers should know such opportunities exist, but there were only four winners of that contest. Don't expect student loan forgiveness to fall in your lap, because if it does, you may not be dealing with a real giveaway.
3. Too-Good-to-Be-True Interest Rates
A common tactic of scammers -- promising shockingly low interest rates to get you to hand over your information -- can also be a tactic of legitimate refinancing options, but you have to be careful.
There aren't many student loan refinancing programs out there, but the ones that exist tend to offer fixed and variable interest rates for the refi. Variable rates start lower than fixed rates, but they could get much higher, and you have no way of knowing exactly what you'll pay in interest over the life of the loan. Variable rates aren't a scam, but they're risky. Make sure you understand how variable rates differ from fixed rates before you refinance.
This is something for future borrowers to consider, too. Sometimes, the variable rates available through private education lenders seem more attractive than the fixed-rate offerings from federal and private lenders, but you can't let the initial rate cloud your long-term view. Getting the lowest variable rates requires great credit, as well, so before you apply, you need to know if you'll qualify.
Private student loans depend on your credit standing, as well, so if you're looking to take out private loans, you'll need to have an idea of what your credit score is and if you'll need someone to co-sign the loan. The first step to repaying your student loans is to check your credit so you know where you're starting. Understand that missing loan payments will not only cost you in interest and fees, but it will hurt your credit score, which can ultimately cause more financial hardship. To get started with tracking your credit standing, you can get your credit data for free through Credit.com.
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