On Friday the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), along with 11 states and the District of Columbia, announced “Operation Game of Loans,” the first coordinated federal-state law enforcement initiative targeting deceptive student loan debt relief scams. This nationwide crackdown encompasses 36 actions by the FTC and state attorneys general against scammers alleged to have used deception and false promises of relief to take more than $95 million in illegal upfront fees from American consumers over a number of years.
According to the announcement by the FTC, Operation Game of Loans includes seven FTC actions: five new cases, one new judgment in favor of the FTC, and a preliminary injunction entered in a case filed earlier this year. The agency alleges that the defendants in these actions charged consumers illegal upfront fees, falsely promised to help reduce or forgive student loan debt burdens, and pretended to be affiliated with the government or loan servicers, in violation of the FTC’s Telemarketing Sales Rule and the FTC Act. Operation Game of Loans also includes law enforcement actions by Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Kansas, Maryland, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Washington, and the District of Columbia.
The following are the actions described in the FTC’s announcement:
Five New FTC Actions Halt Scams
The FTC recently filed five new cases against 30 defendants as part of Operation Game of Loans. In each action, the FTC obtained temporary restraining orders (TROs) that halted the scams and froze defendants’ assets.
- A1 DocPrep, Inc.: In an action filed in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, the FTC charged that Los Angeles-based A1 DocPrep took at least $6 million from consumers through unlawful student loan debt relief and mortgage assistance relief schemes. According to the complaint, the defendants claimed to be from the Department of Education, and promised to reduce borrowers’ monthly payments or forgive their loans. The FTC also alleges the defendants targeted distressed homeowners, making false promises to consumers that they would provide mortgage relief and prevent foreclosure. Rather than helping consumers, A1 DocPrep’s CEO, defendant Homan Ardalan, spent hundreds of thousands of consumers’ dollars on cars, jewelry, nightclubs, and restaurants, according to the FTC. The Court entered a TRO on September 28, 2017. Additional defendants named in the complaint are Stream Lined Marketing, d/b/a Project Uplift Students and Project Uplift America, and Bloom Law Group PC, d/b/a/ Home Shield Network and Keep Your Home USA.
- American Student Loan Consolidators (ASLC): In an action filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida, the FTC charged that ASLC, d/b/a ASLC Processing, and BBND Marketing, LLC, d/b/a United Processing Center, United SL Processing, and United Student Loan Processing, and principals Daniel Upbin and Patrick O’Deady bilked student loan borrowers out of at least $11 million by falsely promising loan forgiveness, lowered monthly payments, and reduced interest rates. The FTC alleges that the Deerfield Beach, Florida operation pretended to be affiliated with the Department of Education and loan servicers. The defendants also tricked consumers into believing that illegal upfront fees, typically up to $799, were being used to pay off student loans. The court entered a TRO on September 26, 2017.
- Alliance Document Preparation: In an action filed in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, the FTC charged that Los Angeles-based Alliance Document Preparation, d/b/a EZ Doc Preps, Grads Aid, and First Document Aid, took more than $20 million from consumers by charging illegal upfront fees of up to $1,000. The defendants deceptively marketed their purported services primarily on social media platforms like Facebook. The court entered a TRO on September 28, 2017.
- Student Debt Doctor (SDD): In an action filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida, the FTC charged that Fort Lauderdale-based SDD and its owner, Gary Brent White, Jr., collected at least $7 million from consumers struggling to pay student loan debt. According to the complaint, the defendants charged illegal upfront fees of $750 or more. Using social media, e-mail, and telemarketing, SDD promoted its services across the United States, in English and Spanish. SDD falsely promised consumers loan forgiveness often in as little as five years or less, and told consumers not to communicate with their loan servicers. The defendants also fabricated income, unemployment status, and family size information on relief applications in order to qualify borrowers for eliminated or reduced monthly payments. The court entered a TRO on October 3, 2017.
- Student Debt Relief Group (SDRG): In an action filed in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, the FTC charged that Los Angeles-based M&T Financial Group and American Counseling Center Corp., d/b/a Student Debt Relief Group, SDRG, StuDebt, Student Loan Relief Counselors, SLRC, and Capital Advocates, and principal Salar Tahour bilked at least $7.3 million from consumers struggling to repay their student loans. According to the complaint, the defendants falsely claimed to be affiliated with the Department of Education, deceived consumers into paying up to $1,000 in illegal upfront fees to enter them into free government programs, and charged consumers monthly fees they claimed would be credited toward their student loans. In reality, the FTC alleged, defendants pocketed consumers’ money and responded to mounting consumer complaints by changing their name rather than their business practices. The FTC also asserts that the defendants deceived consumers into providing them with Social Security numbers and Federal Student Aid identification information, allowing the defendants to hijack consumers’ accounts while cutting them off from their loan servicers and the Department of Education. The court entered a TRO on September 19, 2017, and a stipulated preliminary injunction on October 10, 2017.
Two New FTC Law Enforcement Developments
Operation Game of Loans also includes two pending FTC actions against 11 additional student loan debt relief scammers, in which federal courts recently entered significant orders.
- Student Aid Center: On August 31, 2017, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida granted summary judgment against defendant Ramiro Fernandez-Moris in a joint action filed by the FTC and the State of Florida. The Court found that defendants’ unlawful student loan debt relief enterprise took more than $35 million from student loan borrowers by enticing consumers to sign up for services using misleading and false claims. In particular, Student Aid Center misled consumers to believe that they could receive loan forgiveness or modification if they paid unlawful upfront fees, and tricked consumers into thinking the operation was involved in the approval process. Motions for default judgment against two other defendants are pending before the Court, and the proposed final orders against all three defendants are subject to final Court approval.
- Strategic Student Solutions: On May 26, 2017, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida entered a stipulated preliminary injunction in the FTC’s case against Strategic Student Solutions, freezing defendants’ assets, halting the organization’s student loan debt relief operation, and appointing a receiver to control the business for the remainder of the litigation. The FTC alleged that the defendants took more than $11 million from consumers by falsely promising to reduce or eliminate their student loan debt and offering them non-existent credit repair services.
The FTC notes that it files a complaint when it has “reason to believe” that the law has been or is being violated and it appears to the Commission that a proceeding is in the public interest. The cases will be decided by the court.
In an effort to help consumers avoid scams, the FTC offers this advice:
Consumers should remember that only scammers promise fast loan forgiveness, and that scammers often pretend to be affiliated with the government. And consumers should never pay an upfront fee for help, and should not share their FSA ID—a username and password used to log in to U.S. Department of Education websites—with anyone.
Consumers can apply for loan deferments, forbearance, repayment and forgiveness or discharge programs directly through the U.S. Department of Education or their loan servicer at no cost; these programs do not require the assistance of a third-party company or payment of application fees. For federal student loan repayment options, visit StudentAid.gov/repay. For private student loans, contact the loan servicer directly.
This announcement comes during the same week as a suit filed by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) against another network of alleged debt relief scams. insideARM wrote about that action today as well, and offered our perspective.
It is worth adding in the context of this action (as it relates to student loans) a reference to the May 2017 court-ordered preliminary injunction that effectively prohibited the Department of Education from placing any accounts with any private collection agencies. In addition to the harm that this continuing injunction has caused to all stakeholders, it is undoubtedly causing a new layer of confusion for consumers, possibly making it even more likely that they would fall for a scam that promises assistance with their past due student loans.
Finally, as a writer, I can’t help but note the grammatical faux pas in the screenshot provided by the FTC of a sample deceptive student aid relief ad that reads, “We Have Streamed Lined the Process!”