After President Biden announced his sweeping student loan forgiveness plan in August, borrowers flooded the studentaid.gov website for information on what to do next. For a lot of them, the answers weren't particularly satisfying: sign up for an email alert and wait for the application to be released in early October.
Carolina Rodriguez says she's already getting emails from anxious clients worried about getting their debts forgiven before student loan payments resume in January. She's director of the Education Debt Consumer Assistance Program in New York.
"The stress is about to hit. As the weeks go by, the stress is going to be real," she says.
And that stress has left an opening for scammers to step into.
"It's a ripe environment for scammers to really prey on that kind of desperation," says Katie Paul, director of the Tech Transparency Project, or TTP, a nonprofit organization that monitors tech companies.
Scams were a problem even before Biden's announcement. More than 1 in 10 Google ads for searches on student loan forgiveness were fraudulent, according to a TTP report in July. And while new data isn't yet available, experts tell NPR the problem has gotten worse in the weeks since Biden's big reveal, with borrowers encountering scams in text messages, phone calls and emails. There's even a gray area of legitimate companies asking borrowers to pay for student loan services that should be free.
Education Secretary Miguel Cardona says he's aware that "there are bad actors out there." He recently told NPR his advice to borrowers is simple: "Go to our website studentaid.gov/debtrelief to get information and don't go anywhere else. Don't open up those emails. Don't."
But promising borrowers debt relief and then asking them to hold on for over a month has left many vulnerable to fraud.
When asked why the administration did not wait to announce the program until the application was ready for borrowers, Cardona said, "we couldn't create an application if it hadn't been a policy that the president would have put forth."
While the government takes the time to now build out the program, experts say borrowers are exposed on all sides: texts, emails, ads and phone calls.
Borrowers receive scam ads when they search for loan forgiveness
Searching out information on student debt relief, even before Biden's announcement, was tricky. According to a July report from the TTP, 12% of the Google ads that appeared in searches for key terms around student loan forgiveness, were fraudulent.
TTP uses Google's ad guidelines to determine what is and isn't fake. Asking for personal information or payment before providing a good or a service is one of the most common red flags.
In the organization's next report, Paul says, "it's almost certain we'll see an increase in these scam ads" around loan forgiveness. "Not just because it's at the forefront and scammers like to capitalize on that opportunity, but we're also seeing a surge in people searching for this content."
Though TTP says it alerted Google to the high level of scam ads in July, the group says it found some of the same scam ads popping up after Biden's announcement in August.
"We're seeing dozens of ads slip through the cracks that can have real serious and material consequences for people who are trusting this major company and its search engine to offer up authoritative information," Paul says.
When asked for comment, a Google spokesperson said, "We reviewed the ads in question and removed those that breach our policies."
The company also said it is "committed to combating financial fraud in ads and protecting consumers from scams."
Scammers are phishing for borrowers through emails, texts and phone calls
Borrowers searching for information and finding scams is one thing, but scammers also seek out and find borrowers.
Hank Schless, of the mobile security company Lookout, says borrowers should monitor their email inboxes, text messages, and spam calls. Also: Be wary of anything with a time frame. Scammers will often try to convey a sense of urgency, sometimes with a false emergency, to gain access to information.
"All of a sudden, you could give up name, address, bank card information, Social Security information," Schless explains. "There's a lot tied to [student loans], which is why they're really being hammered so hard by the bad guys right now."
Scammers may also take advantage of the official email alerts borrowers are expecting, by sending emails that purport to be from the U.S. Education Department. Schless says there are easy ways to check if an email is real.
"The thing you always want to do is validate the sender," he says. "The reason that these [scams] are successful in targeting mobile users is because the Gmail or Apple Mail or whatever [email app] you use kind of consolidates the sender email address and only shows their name a lot of the time."
Schless says anyone can claim to be the U.S. Education Department, but not everyone has access to a .gov email address. In order to validate the email, borrowers should click on the name to view the actual address.
Back in New York, Carolina Rodriguez says most of her clients have been getting scams over the phone rather than email.
She recently got a call from a borrower who said she needed Rodriguez's help to get in their student loan account because a caller had promised to get them loan forgiveness immediately. "No, that is not the case," Rodriguez told the borrower, "and let me explain."
Student loan services should be simple
Another concern is when semi-legitimate companies try to convince borrowers to pay for student loan services they don't need.
"It's borderline fraud because no one should have to pay for loan help," Rodriguez says. "But we had clients who say, 'Yeah, I went to a lot of webinars and then they wanted $400 or $600 to fill out the form.' "
Inviting borrowers to webinars, promising to get their loans forgiven if they use their service – Rodriguez says these are the hallmarks of companies that profit off of the student loan industry. They are legitimate because they do provide a service, but it's one that borrowers, in most cases, do not need.
Rodriguez reminds her clients that when the application for loan forgiveness does come out, there will be no need to have a company fill it out.
Secretary Cardona agrees. He says the department is going to make the process simple and quick, "we recognize the user experience matters."
The application should be the easy part; the hard part is the waiting game.
Cory Turner contributed to this report.