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Whether you’re a recent college graduate or ten years out of school, paying off your student loans can be challenging.  Setting aside the money each month for your student loan payments can be tough, particularly as you struggle to save for retirement, buy a house, or meet other financial goals.  And as it turns out, the companies that are supposed to be assisting you when it comes to repaying your student loans may not actually be so helpful after all.

Student loan servicing companies — commonly called servicers — are the companies that handle your student loan payments on behalf of the lenders.  One of the biggest student loan servicers in the nation, Navient (formerly part of Sallie Mae), was recently hit with three separate lawsuits by three separate government agencies, alleging that it gave borrowers the wrong information, put borrowers into repayment plans that cost them money, and misallocated payments.  The lawsuits were filed by the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau, the Illinois Attorney General, and the Washington Attorney General.

The Navient lawsuits allege that the student loan servicer — one of the largest in the country — would create incentives for employees to steer borrowers towards forbearance whenever they were having trouble making their student loan payments instead of income-driven repayment plans.  During forbearance, interest continues to accrue on loans, while switching to an income-driven repayment plan would avoid those fees.  The Consumer Finance Protection Bureau alleges that as a result of this practice, Navient charged more than $4 billion in interest charges to borrowers between January 2010 and March 2015. The three lawsuits also allege that Navient would make it difficult for borrowers to release cosigners from loans, bury critical information in fine print, and would mark loans that should have been discharged due to disability as being in default.

Publicly, Navient has stated that its priority is to help each of its 12 million customers manage its loans in a way that works for them.  But in lawsuit filings, Navient admitted that borrowers cannot rely on it to counsel them about their repayment options, because its primary role is simply to collect payment.

Student loan servicers have long had a poor reputation for properly handling student loans, with reports from borrowers of payments being improperly processed or of difficulty in obtaining the most basic information about their loans. For instance and example, borrowers who qualified for student loan forgiveness may never have be informed of this possibility. The question for any borrowers becomes how you can protect yourself against these unfair business practices.

The first step for any person with student loan debt is to be informed — and to know your rights.  You can start by getting an accurate picture of exactly how much you owe, and who you owe it to — the federal government or private lenders.  You can log onto the Department of Education’s website using the information you used to apply for financial aid to view your outstanding federal student loans and view information about your loan servicer.  To learn more about private student loans, request a free annual copy of your credit report from one of the three main credit reporting agencies; there, you will see the amount of student loan debt outstanding and the lender that holds the debt.  You can then request the loan documents directly from the company.  Next, for federal student loans, explore your options on the Department of Education’s website.  You may be eligible for an income-based or income-driven repayment plan if you are having difficulty making your payments.  Student loan servicers are required to provide information about these programs when requested, along with information about forbearance and deferments.

In addition to knowing your rights, you should also spend some time tracking your payments and your credit report.  Student loan servicers have been accused of inaccurately processing and crediting payments to student loan accounts, resulting in extra interest on their loans.  Student loan servicers are responsible for appropriately reporting payments to credit reporting agencies; if they fail to do so, you have the right to dispute the information until it is corrected.

Finally, if you believe that your student loan servicer has treated you unfairly in some way, you can make a formal complaint through the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau, the Department of Education, or through your state government.  Going through a government agency may help you get a speedier resolution to the problem, especially with the increasing public pressure on servicers after the Navient lawsuits.

Taking control of your student loans can help you avoid being scammed by your student loan servicers.  It may be a little extra work — but it can help to ensure that you are not one of the millions of Americans who has been duped by a student loan servicing company.

Now if you are paying back student loans, there is a good chance that you are working with Navient. After reading about the lawsuit, you may want to switch servicers, but don’t be so hasty. On my own website – The Student Loan Report, I published a survey of Navient student borrowers. I asked them some basic questions to get some insight on the customer support of Navient. The results may not be as bad as the recent lawsuit implies, but I would read on to decide for that yourself.

About the Author:
Drew Cloud is the founder of The Student Loan Report.

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