WASHINGTON The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau took action Thursday against two companies for allegedly running "scams" that promised relief for struggling student loan borrowers.
The agency announced separate orders against Florida-based College Education Services and Student Loan Processing.US in California, the latter of which is a "fictitious business name" for a company called Irvine Web Works. The CFPB said they illegally charged high upfront fees for their services while deceiving borrowers.
"Student loans are already a significant debt for many Americans. College Education Services and Student Loan Processing.US added to that hardship by taking advantage of troubled borrowers and failing to describe their services honestly," CFPB Director Richard Cordray said in a press release. "When scam artists prey on student loan borrowers, we will take action to halt their illegal activity."
The CFPB claims that the now-defunct College Education Services in Tampa "reaped millions of dollars" in upfront fees by advertising to defaulted student loan borrowers through its own websites and online ads. The order also targets Marcia Elena Vargas, the company's owner, and an advisor named Frank Liz.
Under federal law, debt relief providers must at least renegotiate one debt, settle or reduced an amount before collecting a fee. The CFPB said College Education Services charged an average fee of $500 and required all or most of its fees to be paid in advance even though results were often not delivered.
The CFPB said the company ceased operations in February 2013. The consent order released Thursday permanently bans College Education Services, Vargas and Liz from ever engaging in another debt relief business. They must also pay a $25,000 civil penalty, which the CFPB said "was based on the defendants' inability to pay a more substantial amount."
Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi also joined in the action against College Education Services and its predecessor, College-Defaulted Student Loan LLC. Among the charges, officials said College Education Services falsely guaranteed to reduce a loan's monthly payments by up to 50% and to secure a new federally backed consolidated loan within a short time frame.
"People who are diligently making student loan payments shouldn't have to worry about scammers seeking to exploit them," said Bondi in a press release. "My office will continue to protect all people from student loan scams."
In a separate suit, the agency claimed that Student Loan Processing.US and its owner, James Krause, falsely led consumers to believe the company was affiliated with the Department of Education and then charged upfront fees for federal loan repayment services. The company also allegedly charged a monthly fee on repayment plans that some students would have qualified for free. The alleged activities date back to at least July 2011.
"The company uses a logo that resembles a government seal, stamps 'Official Business' on its mail to consumers, and cites federal law prohibiting mail tampering to create the impression that the marketing material is sent or endorsed by the federal government," the CFPB said in its press release.
But in a written statement, Krause said he stands by the services his company provides.
Student Loan Process.US "has cooperated with the CFPB investigators for more than a year, and we are surprised they are proceeding with this action," he said. "Without our help, most of our clients would not even be aware that the Department of Education student loan consolidation programs exist."
The CFPB is seeking court approval to order Student Loan Processing.US to stop such activities, pay restitution to harmed consumers and a civil money penalty for an amount yet to be agreed upon.