A few weeks ago, I got a call on my cell phone from an unfamiliar number in Baxter, Minnesota. I answered and, after a beat, a warm but unmistakably pre-recorded female voice told me that my student loans had been “flagged” for a new federal government “debt forgiveness program,” one that could significantly lower or eliminate my monthly payments. If interested, I should press “1” to be connected with a debt counselor.

The call had all the hallmarks of a telemarketing scam. The genial robo-voice. The vague promises. The suspicious origin. (Baxter, it turns out, is home to 7,610 Minnesotans and an EPA-rated toxic wastewater site.) I consider myself a fairly savvy consumer, and I research and report on privacy issues for a living. But I also have student debt. Not a ton, but enough. And the prospect of quick relief was momentarily exhilarating.

I did not press “1,” as suggested. I hung up and Googled the phone number, finding hundreds of complaints about scam phone calls from this number. But perhaps if my debt burden were a little heavier, my financial straits a little more dire, I would have. That vulnerability—the kneejerk desperation of the young and indebted—is what an array of new student “debt relief” companies rely on to make an easy buck. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) has begun to crack down on these outfits, which lure vulnerable borrowers with promises of savings, fleece them for exorbitant up-front fees, and then enroll them in government programs that they could otherwise access for free. In some cases, the CFPB warns, companies fail to deliver, “leaving you with more debt and less time to avoid financial distress or default.”

Florida-based College Education Services LLC, for example, which the CFPB shut down in December 2014, charged consumers as much as $2,500 in fees, much of it upfront, taking money from even those borrowers who didn’t qualify for federal debt relief. Many companies—including whoever was responsible for the call from Baxter, MN—falsely imply an affiliation with the federal government. StudentLoanProcessing.US, the target of an ongoing CFPB lawsuit, uses a logo that looks like a government seal, stamps “Official Business” on its mail to consumers, and cites mail tampering laws to “create the impression that marketing material is sent or endorsed by the federal government.”

(As of Wednesday, the website for StudentLoanProcessing.US was still up and running. This is what their logo looks like.)

Desperation Is Good for Business

So how did they get my number?

The CFPB, in its consumer advisory on student debt relief firms, says that victims of these schemes are often “lured in by aggressive marketing practices that target… vulnerable student loan borrowers.”

Do the folks in Baxter, MN somehow know that I have student debt? Probably not. But they don’t have to. I fit the profile: I’m a 20-something graduate of an expensive private university. I live in New York City. I am a renter. I recently signed up for a savings card at Key Food. It’s possible to infer almost anything about a consumer given enough data points—and thanks to the digital-era obsession with tracking our every click, search, and purchase online, the data points are all but limitless.

Indeed, as investigations by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Senate Commerce Committee have revealed, big data brokers regularly compile and sell lists of financially vulnerable consumers. Sold under names like “Meager Metro Means,” “Resilient Renters,” “Credit Crunched City Families,” and, most transparently, “Burdened by Debt: Singles,” lists of economically stressed Americans are a hot-ticket item for companies advertising payday loans, subprime auto loans, and other predatory financial products.

Source: U.S. Senate. Committee Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. A Review of the Data Broker Industry: Collection, Use, and Sale of Consumer Data for Marketing Purposes. Dec. 18, 2013. http://1.usa.gov/JGxBej

It’s easy to imagine these lists falling into the hands of firms trying to target student debtors. And it’s easy to imagine my name, phone number, or email address winding up on one of those lists. (I just checked my spam folder: I have three different emails, in the past month alone, advertising a “seldom-known trick” for reducing my student loan debt.)

Search and Destroy

But nefarious data brokers trading names and numbers in backroom deals is far from the only way for debt relief scams to target desperate borrowers.

If you suddenly found yourself deep in the red, what might you do first? Where would you turn? Debt relief companies are counting on you doing what most people do when a serious and complicated problem strikes: Google it.

Earlier this summer, the CFPB sent letters to Microsoft, Google, Facebook, and Yahoo warning them that student debt scammers were using their ad services and search products to “lure distressed borrowers.” CFPB Student Loan Ombudsman Rohit Chopra urged the companies to watch out for suspicious ads that pop-up when users search for keywords such as “student debt relief,” “student loan forgiveness,” and “Obama student loan relief.”

Today, when I searched for “student debt relief” on Google, the first three results were for the same website: studentdebtrelief.us—which, despite its SEO-commanding name and deceptively official-sounding “.us” domain, is not affiliated with the federal government. Rather, like the sites investigated by the CFPB, Student Debt Relief charges hundreds of dollars to prepare and submit documents to free government programs. The website does not (loudly) advertise the fact that borrowers have the option of submitting the forms on their own at no cost.

The fourth Google result was a Department of Education page titled “Beware of Student Loan Debt Relief Offers.”

Source: Screenshot taken by the author

Student Debt Relief (SDR, for brevity’s sake) is a Boynton Beach, Florida-based company advertising student loan consolidation, loan forgiveness, and income-based payments. On its homepage, a photo carousel of happy, confident people accompanies the declaration: “Your Student Debt Relief Starts Here.” Like other student “debt relief” companies, SDR has a logo seemingly designed to resemble a government seal.

The front page also offers borrowers the opportunity to get an “instant quote” if they fill in a series of required fields, including loan balance, income, marital status, full name, email, and phone number.

According to the site’s privacy policy, to which borrowers must consent in order to receive their quote, SDR may “sell, trade, or otherwise transfer to outside parties your name, address, city, town, any form or online contact identifier email, name of chat account etc., phone number, SSN, and student loan balances.” The policy goes on:

We share your information to other companies who provide us with services to help promote our content via email and text alerts, as well as with reputable companies who may be able to offer you assistance with your debt.

If you’re not in the habit of reading website privacy policies, you should know that this degree of horrible is not unheard of. This practice—of cultivating consumer interest in a service, collecting their private data, and then selling that data to third parties—is called “lead generation.” The FTC has recently begun investigating the lawfulness of deceptive online lead-generating practices.

What is particularly egregious, however, is that SDR is collecting and selling not only contact information but financial data too—borrowers’ debt balance. Worse, these items are linked to names. Meaning data brokers, predatory lending firms, and other for-profit “debt relief” servicers can purchase borrowers’ info with full knowledge of their financial insecurity.

In other words, whether or not SDR is a legitimate business, signing up for a quote on its website guarantees you a spot on one of those lists of “Credit Crunched City Families,” and a lifetime of anonymous phone calls from Baxter, Minnesota.

My Chat with Mary

To its credit, SDR does not appear to require upfront fees before assessing borrowers’ eligibility for loan relief. Its counselors are not paid on commission, and customers are guaranteed their money back if they don’t qualify for a program they’ve paid SDR to apply to on their behalf.

The website explains—in at least one place—that the company is “not affiliated in any way with any local, state, or federal government agency.” The same page explains that borrowers have the option of consolidating their loans “directly with the Department of Education.”

That page, however, is not easily accessible through the architecture of the site; I had to use the search bar to navigate to it.

When I called the phone number on the homepage, I spoke to a nice woman (I’ll call her Mary), who immediately asked me for the same sensitive information I was encouraged to input on the homepage. I declined.

Instead, I asked, “Is this a government program?”

“It is,” Mary answered.

Depending on what Mary assumed I meant by “this,” that was a very misleading answer. I gave her a chance to clarify.

“So the website is a government website?”

“No,” said Mary, “We’re a private company, but it’s a government program.”

“So, is there a way to apply for this program without paying you guys?” I said.

Carefully, Mary said yes. Then she made her pitch:

But if you do it wrong, you’re married to it. You have to know the codes to pay off all your loans. You have to know how to do the promissory note. You have to know what you’re putting yourself into. Can you do it? Absolutely. Do I advise it? Absolutely not. Just like you could change the transmission in your car. Should you do that? I would say you should probably take it to a transmission specialist, but can you do it? Yes, you can.

I told Mary that I like to get my hands dirty and would go ahead and try to install my own transmission. She graciously told me that was “my prerogative.”

Then I asked, “If I want to get the forms myself, where do I get them?”

“You’d have to just Google and figure it out,” Mary said. “I have no idea.”

What Is To Be Done

As far as I can tell from reviews online, Student Debt Relief does do what it claims to do: submit applications on behalf of borrowers to the Department of Education—in exchange for a one-time processing fee of $399 (or two installments of $225). It is not accredited by the Better Business Bureau (BBB), but it appears that some of the worst complaints against SDR on the BBB site confuse it with other similarly named but more actively nefarious outfits.

SDR appears to be operating in a regulatory grey zone: profiting off the desperation and confusion of distressed borrowers, but in a less flagrant and vicious way than some of its competitors. Mary was a nice enough lady who (eventually) answered my questions honestly. She pressured me to sign up, but no more so than any good saleswoman would. SDR should be investigated by the CFPB, but it may not fall afoul of any explicit statutes.

However, there’s simply no justification for SDR’s search prominence. SDR was in the top one or two results for dozens of searches I conducted with different iterations of the words “student,” “loan,” “debt,” “Obama,” “relief,” “forgiveness,” “consolidation,” and “default.”  (I encourage you to try this yourself. It’s remarkably consistent.)

Ad agencies estimate that the first three Google results get 91% of search traffic. That means the vast majority of borrowers looking for help online are being directed not to the Department of Education, but to a profit-driven service—one designed to look like an official government program.

In 2011, Google cooperated with the government in cracking down on scammers preying on distressed homeowners by suspending relationships with more than 500 advertisers.

As the CFPB has urged, Google should once again take responsibility for its role in determining what information gets in front of users’ eyes by driving search traffic toward unbiased sources—like the Department of Education’s own debt relief walkthrough.

If borrowers find the DOE’s materials too complex or need help navigating the application, they are of course empowered to seek help from private companies like Student Debt Relief. But as it stands, many borrowers may never see the DOE site before signing up for SDR’s services. Indeed, many borrowers will assume that the official-looking SDR website is their only route to student debt relief—and SDR does not seem anxious to disavow them of that assumption.

More to the point, if borrowers are bewildered by their options for debt relief and in need of counseling, that is something the government itself—and the loan servicers it contracts to handle student loans—should be providing.

Earlier this summer, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, who has prosecuted multiple student debt scammers in her state, urged the Department of Education to provide certified non-profit credit counselors for student loan borrowers.

“Student loan borrowers have nowhere to turn right now to access legitimate information and assistance about their repayment options,” Madigan wrote in a letter to Education Secretary Arne Duncan. “It is critical that we provide these borrowers a lifeline before they make costly mistakes by turning to scam artists for help.”

Madigan is absolutely right. The government’s neglect has created a space for online predators to thrive. Now it’s the government’s responsibility to fix it.