The total amount of federal student loan debt in the U.S. is about one trillion dollars. When a borrower falls behind on payments, the student loan collections process begins. Although federal student loan collectors have impressive collection powers, it's important for consumers to recognize that the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act still prevents a debt collector from making false or misleading statements or otherwise harassing or abusing a consumer. Here are some of the most frequent FDCPA violations in student loan collections:
Misleading threats to garnish wages
Debt collectors often mislead or lie to consumers about the imminence of a wage garnishment if the consumer doesn't pay immediately. A federal student loan collector may institute an administrative wage garnishment against a consumer who is delinquent. No judgment is required. But there are important steps that a collector must follow before starting an administrative wage garnishment. They must send the consumer a notice--at least 30 days before starting the garnishment--that advises the consumer of their right to inspect the records related to the debt, their right to a written repayment agreement, and their right to a hearing. The consumer then has 15 days to request a hearing. And a private student loan collector doesn't have the ability to do an administrative wage garnishment. They have to sue the consumer and get a court judgment first. So, a collector can't just start a wage garnishment immediately if the consumer doesn't pay and any threats to the contrary probably violate the FDCPA.
Lies about how to get a federal student loan out of default
Debt collectors often lie to or mislead consumers about the ability to get a loan out of student loan collections. A federal student loan is considered to be in "default" if the borrower goes 270 days without making a payment. Once the loan is in default, a 25% collection fee may be tacked on. But a borrower can get a federal student loan out of default by "rehabilitating" the loan. This means making nine voluntary, reasonable, and affordable monthly payments within 20 days of the due date during ten consecutive months. A borrower may also be able to get the loans out of default by consolidating into a single loan. Debt collectors often tell consumers that there's nothing they can do to get the loan out of default, or don't tell them about all of their options, which may violate the FDCPA.
Telling consumers that they can't discharge student loans in bankruptcy
Student loan collectors often tell consumers that student loans can't be discharged in bankruptcy. While this is often true, it isn't always true. A borrower may be able to get a student loan discharged if they can prove undue hardship. The burden of proving undue hardship is very difficult, but it can, and has, been done. A debt collector that tells you that student loans can never be eliminated in bankruptcy isn't telling the truth and is likely violating the FDCPA.
Illegal contacts with third parties
Under the FDCPA, a student loan collector (or any collector) can't communicate with your family members, co-workers, friends, or other third parties. Even threats to do so probably violate the FDCPA.
The bottom line
If a student loan collector chooses to give a consumer legal advice, they better get it right. Making false statements about the law or a consumer's options probably violates the FDCPA.