Two companies that allegedly ran scams promising debt relief for student loan borrowers are named in separate enforcement orders announced Thursday by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
The CFPB claims that College Education Services, now closed but formerly based in Tampa, Fla., reaped millions of dollars in upfront fees by advertising to defaulted student loan borrowers through its websites and online ads. The order further targets Marcia Elena Vargas, the company's owner, and an advisor named Frank Liz.
Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi joined in the action against College Education Services and its predecessor, College-Defaulted Student Loan LLC. Officials said College Education Services, among the charges, 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.
In a separate lawsuit, the CFPB states that Student Loan Processing.US in California and owner James Krause, falsely led consumers to believe the company was affiliated with the Department of Education. It then charged upfront fees for federal loan repayment services. The company 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.
Krause, in a statement, said he stands by the services his company offers. 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 wants 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. The CFPB said the company's name itself is a "fictitious business name" for a firm called Irvine Web Works.
Under federal law, debt relief providers must at least renegotiate one debt, settle or reduced an amount before collecting a fee.
College Education Services, the CFPB said, 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 College Education Services, stopped operations in February 2013. The consent order released Thursday permanently bans the company, 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."
"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."