5 Ways People Got Screwed Over by Their Student Loan Servicer

 October 3, 2019
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Dealing with student loans can make you feel like you’re starring in a horror movie. So much can go wrong with your own debt management, but when your student loan servicer makes mistakes, a struggle can turn into something much worse.

What can you do if your servicer makes a wrong move? Here are five common student loan servicer errors to watch for — and the best weapons to fight them:

1. Disappearing student loans
2. Misapplied student loan payments
3. Student loan balances that come back from the dead
4. Stalled application to adjust repayment
5. Errors in your student loan account
Dealing with your servicer: When to take it to the next level

1. Disappearing student loans

Keys, socks and wallets are items we’re used to misplacing or losing. But student loans that disappear? It happened to Emily Guy Birken, author of “End Financial Stress Now.”

“I logged on to my [federal direct loan] account and found that my balance was $0 rather than the $12,000 I owed,” Birken said. But she knew the $0 wasn’t a free ride.

“I panicked,” Birken said. “I pay very close attention to my finances, and I could only imagine that the $0 balance represented some kind of mistake that I was going to have to spend time or money to fix.”

Why does student debt disappear? It happens most often when your federal student loans are sold to a new servicer.

Servicers should let you know if your loans are transferred or sold, but there’s often a lag between your account closing and the notification from your new servicer.

What’s more, you could end up not getting your bill if your new servicer doesn’t have your most current contact information or doesn’t do its part to notify you.

What you can do

If your student loans disappear, don’t panic (or celebrate) just yet. You’ll need to find your student loan, and you’ll still be responsible for repaying the debt.

Here are some ways to find your lost student loans:

  • Reach out to your servicer to find out what happened to your loan.
  • Check the National Student Loan Data System to see if it has updated information on your transferred loans.
  • Review your free credit reports to see if your old or new student loan servicer reported the transfer to the credit bureaus.

However, taking those actions might not end your problems right away. Even after Birken found out that her new servicer was the Missouri Higher Education Loan Authority (MOHELA), she couldn’t access her loan information.

“I was told that they did not yet have my account set up and they could not answer any questions,” Birken said.

Once you make contact with your new student loan servicer, be sure to follow up and continue your on-time payments. That way, you can avoid any late fees or dings to your credit later on.

2. Misapplied student loan payments

Maybe you’re sending in extra student loan payments but your principal isn’t going down. Or your extra payments are mysteriously redirected to your student loan with the lowest interest rate.

Simply put, student loan servicers’ payment processing systems aren’t always set up to properly apply and direct extra payments beyond the monthly minimums.

So in the cases above, your student loan servicer might be treating extra payments as prepayments and moving back your due date rather than lowering your principal. Or, the servicer might be set up to automatically apply extra payments to pay down low-interest loans first, costing you more over time.

Birken had another issue with her payments. She had been paying $600 a month voluntarily but had her payment reduced to her $360 minimum just before her loans were transferred.

However, she said: “When MOHELA bought my loan, they recorded $600 as my minimum payment and would not allow me to change it back to the minimum I [previously] had.”

What you can do

You have the right to tell your student loan servicer how to apply any extra student loan payments. You could write a letter outlining how you want extra payments to be applied (you can use the sample provided here).

“Being able to lay your hands on your original paperwork is also important,” Birken said. With her original paperwork, she was able to prove her minimum was $360 and get the payment changed.

Here are some record-keeping steps Birken recommends taking when you work with your servicer:

  • “Document everything, including the dates that you speak to your loan servicer and what you discuss.”
  • “Keep copies of canceled checks, screenshots of loan payments and bank statements that show direct payments.”

3. Student loan balances that come back from the dead

Kaysie Garza is a former student loan borrower who worked hard to pay off $30,000 in student debt in just 19 months.

After making her last payment, she reviewed her account. Strangely, her servicer claimed she still owed $1,000.

Through an accounting error, her student loan servicer had added an extra $1,000 to Garza’s balance. These mistakes aren’t common, but they can happen. And if you don’t prevent or catch them, they can cost you.

What you can do

Garza knew she didn’t owe that $1,000 — and she could prove it. She had regularly viewed her student loan account online, taking screenshots after each payment to track her progress.

These screenshots served as documentation that helped her prove the extra $1,000 was an error, and Garza was able to get it erased.

To give yourself similar protections, save copies of payment confirmations and monthly statements. Also, check your balance each month to make sure it’s correct.

Then, after you send in your last payment, make sure to request a student loan payoff letter that certifies you’ve fully settled your account.

4. Stalled application to adjust repayment

Changing your repayment plan through deferment or forbearance or by switching to an income-driven repayment (IDR) plan can feel almost as painful as a torture scene from “Game of Thrones.”

OK, we might be exaggerating. Though, problems with applications for income-driven plans and deferment are among the top reasons borrowers complain to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) about their student loan servicers.

The CFPB in an April 2017 monthly snapshot (it stopped doing the snapshots shortly after) cited complaints about processing delays and inaccurate denials.

The snapshot discussed complaints of lost documents, long application processing times, missed loan forgiveness payments and unclear advice when selecting a new IDR plan.

What you can do

First, make sure you do your part by sending in all documents needed to process your application. It won’t hurt to review the application a few times to ensure you’ve correctly included all the necessary info.

Next, don’t change your payments in the meantime. You won’t be able to stop payments or pay less until your application is processed and you’ve received confirmation that your payment adjustments are approved.

If you pay less before you’ve been approved, you could become delinquent and face consequences ranging from late charges to default.

Lastly, communicate regularly with your student loan servicer. Be proactive about checking on your application process until you’re certain it has been processed.

5. Errors in your student loan account

Errors in your student loan account information can result in a number of issues. These issues might range from something as benign as not having your most up-to-date information to something as serious as having the wrong name or birthdate listed.

Lorrie Cozzens, vice president of marketing communications at DroneAscent, ran into this problem.

After earning a master’s degree, she applied to consolidate her federal student loans. She checked in on her application regularly, but every time she was told her servicer was still processing it. After six months of back and forth, Cozzens was done.

“Look,” she recalled telling the loan servicer’s rep. “I don’t want my business with you. This [is] being forced. This process should have been over months ago. What on earth is the holdup?”

After reviewing her application, the representative found that Cozzens’ birth year had been mistyped — she would have been 97 years old.

“If I am 97 and still paying student loans, I have failed at life,” Cozzens joked.

The error was corrected, and her consolidation was processed.

What you can do

To prevent such errors, it might be helpful to regularly review your student loan accounts.

Make sure you review all account and contact information that’s listed when you log in to the online portal and on any email or paper communications you receive from your servicer.

If something’s amiss, make sure you contact your servicer to correct it right away.

When to take it to the next level

The following options could help you escalate your concerns, hold your servicer accountable and resolve the issue:

  • Submit a complaint to the CFPB. This will document your issue and require your student loan servicer to respond (typically) within 15 days. Borrowers should note that although a complaint can be filed, many in recent years have questioned how helpful the CFPB has been to student loan borrowers.
  • Enlist the help of a student loan ombudsman. A neutral mediator is used to settle disputes between borrowers and student loan servicers.
  • Refinance your loans with a new lender. Unfortunately, borrowers don’t get to choose their federal student loan servicer. But by refinancing, you can pick a private lender that has a reputation for being fair and offering a better customer experience.
  • Hire an attorney who specializes in student loans. Depending on what type of difficulty you are experiencing with your student loan servicer, hiring an attorney who is knowledgeable of student loans and your rights as a borrower could prove to be beneficial.
  • Submit a complaint to the Fair Trade Commission (FTC). Student loan scams exist, so if a student loan servicer is engaging in fraudulent or abusive activities, borrowers should file a complaint.

Make sure you’re being proactive and avoiding student loan mistakes. Don’t be the student loan borrower who ignores their issues instead of working to solve them.

Using the strategies above, you can vanquish your student loan debt once and for all.

Kristina Byas contributed to this report.