A MARTINEZ, HOST:
Student borrowers flooded government websites after President Biden announced his sweeping student loan forgiveness plan back in August. They were eager to apply for their 10 to $20,000 in loan forgiveness. But there was and still is no way to apply. Now, while the government takes the time to build out the program, experts say borrowers are vulnerable to scams. Sequoia Carrillo from NPR's education team is here to tell borrowers what to look out for. Sequoia, let's start off with where borrowers are encountering scams right now.
SEQUOIA CARRILLO, BYLINE: Borrowers are really getting hit all over right now. They're getting phone calls, texts, emails. And even when they're searching for answers online, they're finding scams instead. They're stressed. They really don't want to miss the window to apply for loan forgiveness. So they Google things like student loan forgiveness or Biden loan forgiveness plan. And a lot of ads come up first. But a lot of those results are scams. According to a recent study from the Tech Transparency Project, a nonprofit watchdog organization, more than 1 in 10 ads on Google searches like that are fraudulent. And that number is actually from back in July, so before Biden's announcement. So the group says the number is almost certainly higher now.
MARTINEZ: So what kinds of signs should borrowers look out for to protect themselves against these scams?
CARRILLO: There's some obvious scams. Asking for personal information or any kind of payment is a big red flag. Do not give out your Social Security number or bank information. But there are some that are harder to spot. There are companies that operate in a gray area, promising to get borrowers' loans forgiven if they pay to use their service or attend their webinars. These companies are legitimate because they do provide a service, but it's one that borrowers in most cases do not need. And they charge hundreds of dollars for it. The White House says the application for debt relief will be ready in early October. And they say it will be straightforward and easy to fill out, no outside companies necessary. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona recently spoke to my colleague, Cory Turner. And he put it very clearly.
MIGUEL CARDONA: Go to our website, studentaid.gov/debtrelief, to get information. And don't go anywhere else. Don't open up those emails.
MARTINEZ: But, Sequoia, aren't borrowers waiting for an email from the government?
CARRILLO: Yes, that is the one big exception. Borrowers should be getting an email when the application opens up. And scammers could take advantage of that. But luckily, it's pretty straightforward to sort out a fake email from a real one. Just make sure you look at the email address of the sender, not the name. Any official email will come from a .gov email address. One other thing to keep in mind, scams are often coming over the phone. But the department has been very clear that they are not calling or texting borrowers about this plan. So any phone calls and texts are not real.
MARTINEZ: I've thought about this a lot. And it just seems to me that a lot of this could have been avoided if the government had rolled out the application at the same time they announced the relief, the student debt relief. So why did the administration announce this before they had that system in place?
CARRILLO: This is the big question - right? - and one that a lot of borrower advocates have been asking. When we asked Secretary Cardona, he gave us this answer.
CARDONA: Having an application process, creating an application process on something that has not been announced or hasn't been going through the finish line - we wouldn't be building an application on something that we wouldn't know what we're building it for.
CARRILLO: At the end of the day, scammers will take advantage of any vulnerability. The best thing for borrowers to do, experts say, is to just stay vigilant and be prepared for scams to come their way. We can promise, as soon as the application is out, we'll have all the information for you here on NPR.
MARTINEZ: All right. That's Sequoia Carrillo from NPR. Sequoia, thanks a lot.
CARRILLO: Thank you.
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