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State Prosecutors Accuse Student Loan Giant Of Wrongdoing

Navient Corp., the nation’s largest student loan company, violated state laws that ban unfair or abusive practices by paying call center workers based on how quickly they could get struggling borrowers off the phone, a group of more than two dozen state attorneys general alleged.

The states’ findings are the result of a two-year investigation launched at the end of 2013 that analyzed thousands of Navient documents, more than 4,000 consumer complaints, and an unspecified number of recordings of calls between borrowers and Navient call center workers.

The coalition of 29 state attorneys general, led by Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, shared their findings with Navient on April 13 and proposed terms for a legal settlement, officials said. The company has not yet formally responded.

The allegations are devastating, several officials involved in the investigation said, calling into question Navient’s ability to provide basic customer service to the more than 12 million Americans whose private and government student loans it services. The company formerly was known as Sallie Mae, and the investigation covers practices under both names.

The findings raise the specter of higher costs and reduced profitability for Navient, which in recent years has been in the crosshairs of state prosecutors, federal banking and consumer regulators, and the Department of Justice for allegedly mistreating student loan borrowers.

Navient has generally denied wrongdoing. Patricia Christel, a company spokeswoman, didn't respond to a request for comment. "We're working aggressively with the regulators to make sure that they understand what we are doing, how we run our business, and certainly more than willing to work with them to improve the way the federal student loan program works and operates," CEO John Remondi told investors last week.

Maura Possley, a spokeswoman for Madigan, declined to comment.

The investigation found that Navient, a prominent Department of Education loan contractor, inappropriately steered borrowers desperate for help into plans that temporarily defer required payments. But those plans allow loan balances to grow. Navient employees instead should have steered borrowers to White House-promoted plans that could’ve allowed zero payments based on earnings and eventually debt forgiveness, officials said.

Navient employees did this, officials alleged, because it was faster to enroll borrowers in temporary plans -- and get them off the phone -- than in income-based plans.

In 2013, before the company changed its name to Navient, Remondi told investors that it was “very expensive work“ to enroll borrowers in income-based plans. A Huffington Post investigation in 2013 revealed that the company was failing to enroll many of its distressed borrowers in income-based plans.

Borrowers who use temporary deferment or forbearance plans are more likely to default on their federal student loans, according to a 2006 Education Department study. In 2014, fewer than 5 percent of loan balances enrolled in the two most popular income-based plans were delinquent, according to a separate Education Department review.

Deferment and forbearance plans “should not be the first option” for struggling borrowers, the Education Department told financial aid administrators in November 2012.

The investigators found that employees often didn’t know the basics about the federal government’s income-based plans. Data from Google appears to back up that claim. The company has a major call center in Fishers, Indiana. People in no city in America search more often for the term “ibr” -- short for the government’s Income-Based Repayment plan -- than folks in Fishers.

The White House will announce on Thursday a public relations effort to increase the number of borrowers enrolled in income-based plans. White House officials previewed the effort in March, when they described the campaign as a “call to action” for employers and others “to help more borrowers better understand their options,” even though the Obama administration already paid loan contractors such as Navient nearly $804 million last year to do exactly that.

Navient’s practices seemed to strike vulnerable borrowers particularly hard. Severely disabled Americans with federal student loans are eligible to have their debt extinguished as a result of their disability. Investigators found evidence Navient employees weren't informing these borrowers about their rights. The company’s response in those cases, officials said, amounted to “tough luck.”

Similarly, Navient employees demanded payment from borrowers with federal student loans who may have been eligible for debt forgiveness because their school abruptly shut down or defrauded them. Company employees, officials said, rarely bothered to inform debtors about options.

The company’s practices extended to private student loans, or those without government backing. Distressed borrowers who called Navient requesting lower monthly payments often were given the runaround, winning temporary relief from one Navient employee, only to have the offer rescinded by another Navient worker.

The company has previously and repeatedly claimed that it offers a “highly successful” private loan modification program. Officials said the state investigators found that Navient employees often squeeze struggling borrowers for as much money as possible, and that loan modifications generally are offered only when borrowers claim they can’t pay anything.

Prosecutors may go after other student loan companies after they wrap up the Navient investigation, officials said.

The state attorneys general are demanding reforms aimed at improving customer service. For example, prosecutors want Navient to stop giving its call center employees financial incentives to rush distressed borrowers off the phone. When borrowers struggling with federal loans call the company, state prosecutors want Navient to begin by asking for borrowers’ earnings information so they can immediately inform borrowers about income plan options.

Officials told Navient that they expect call center employees to know when federal borrowers may be eligible for debt forgiveness under special circumstances, such as if the former student’s school abruptly shut down, if the borrower is severely disabled, or if the Education Department previously determined that the borrower’s former school defrauded its students.

Prosecutors also demanded that the company have customer service representatives specially dedicated to helping borrowers enroll in income-based plans. They want the company to increase the amount of training it gives its call center workers.

State officials have not yet formally suggested to the company how much money they are seeking to remedy the alleged mistreatment of borrowers.

State prosecutors are working closely with the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which over the last few years has publicly warned that its examiners found similar practices pervasive throughout the student loan industry. The consumer bureau told Navient in August that its enforcement staff had found enough evidence to indicate the company violated federal consumer protection laws, and was considering suing the company for allegedly cheating borrowers.

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