We recently mentioned Discover as a potential source of student loans… The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has indicated that Discover was overstating the minimum payment amounts borrowers had to make, engaged in illegal debt-collection tactics and denied borrowers information about how they could receive federal income-tax benefits.
“Discover created student debt stress for borrowers by inflating their bills and misleading them about important benefits,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray. “Illegal servicing and debt collection practices add insult to injury for borrowers struggling to pay back their loans. Today’s action is an important step in the Bureau’s work to clean up the student loan servicing market.”
Student loans make up the nation’s second largest consumer debt market. The market has grown rapidly in the last decade. Today there are more than 40 million federal and private student loan borrowers and collectively these consumers owe more than $1.2 trillion. The market is now facing an increasing number of borrowers who are struggling to stay current on their loans. Earlier this year, the Bureau revealed that more than 8 million borrowers were in default on more than $110 billion in student loans, a problem that may be driven by breakdowns in student loan servicing. While private student loans are a small portion of the overall market, they are generally used by borrowers with high levels of debt who also have federal loans.
The agency noted several specific areas in which Discover acted inappropriately, specifically:
- Overstated the minimum amount due in billing statements: Discover overstated the minimum amount due for certain borrowers who were just starting to pay off their student loan debts. The minimum payment due incorrectly included interest on loans that were still in deferment and were not required to be paid. For some borrowers this overpayment meant diverting payments from other expenses; for others it meant not paying at all because they thought they could not come close to making the full payment and instead accrued associated penalties.
- Misrepresented on its website the amount of student loan interest paid: The tax code permits taxpayers to deduct student loan interest paid during the year under certain conditions. Servicers are required to provide borrowers with a statement specifying how much the borrower paid in interest, if it was more than $600. Discover did not provide the Citibank private student loan borrowers with the customary tax information form it provided to its other borrowers, unless those borrowers submitted certain paperwork. For those borrowers who did not submit that additional form, their online interest statements on Discover’s website in 2011 and 2012 reflected $0.00 in interest paid. Discover did not explain that the borrowers were required to fill out a form to get the correct amount of interest they paid. This zero interest statement was likely to mislead consumers into believing that they did not qualify for the student loan tax deduction, potentially causing consumers to not seek important tax benefits.
- Illegally called consumers early in the morning and late at night, often excessively: Discover placed more than 150,000 calls to student loan borrowers at inappropriate times – before 8 a.m. and after 9 p.m. in the borrower’s time zone. Discover learned about these violations in October 2012 but failed to address the problem until February 2013.
- Engaged in illegal debt collection tactics: Discover acquired a portfolio of defaulted debt from Citibank but failed to comply with the consumer notices required by federal law. For example, the company failed to provide consumers with specific information about the amount and source of the debt and the consumer’s right to contest the debt’s validity. That information must be provided during the debt collector’s initial communication or in a written notice immediately following that initial communication.
The company is now being forced to repay $16 million in loans to approximately 100,000 borrowers as follows:
- Provide an account credit (or a check if the loans are no longer serviced by Discover) to the consumers who were misled about their minimum payments in an amount equal to the greater of $100 or 10% of the overpayment, up to $500. About 5,200 victims will get this credit;
- Reimburse up to $300 in tax preparation costs for consumers who amend their 2011 or 2012 tax returns to claim student loan interest deductions. For consumers who do not participate in this tax program or did not take advantage of earlier ones offered by the company, Discover will issue an account credit of $75 (or a check if their loans are no longer serviced by Discover) for each relevant tax year. About 130,000 victims will receive this relief; and
- Provide account credits of $92 to consumers subjected to more than five but fewer than 25 out-of-time collection calls and account credits of $142 to consumers subjected to more than 25 calls. About 5,000 victims will receive these credits.