A Google spokesperson said the company’s rules forbid advertisers from wrongly suggesting they were affiliated with the government, and that there are “strict rules” for ads related to financial services, including a ban on those that fail to disclose fees or push credit repair. “We are committed to combating financial fraud in ads and protecting consumers from scams,” the spokesperson said. “We are reviewing the ads in question and will remove any that breach our policies."
The advertisements are particularly worrisome at a time of heightened interest in federal student loan relief, when more people are likely to be conducting these searches, TTP said.
Payments on federal student loans have been suspended since March 2020, and President Biden has extended the reprieve through Aug. 31. The break on payments has provided for relief for borrowers but also sparked uncertainty about their future obligations. Today, 45 million people collectively owe nearly $1.7 trillion in student loan debt, according to the Student Borrower Protection Center, a Washington-based nonprofit.
Federal student loans are serviced by third-party companies, and the poor service that borrowers often receive, coupled with the lack of clarity from the Biden administration about the future of student loan relief, has made them even more vulnerable to scams, said Ben Kaufman, director of research and investigations at the Student Borrower Protection Center.
“The borrowers are just screwed,” he said. “They are made to be catnip for these scammers.”
In 2015, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau urged Google, Microsoft Corp., Meta Platforms Inc.’s Facebook and Yahoo! Inc. to take steps to ensure that ads for suspicious services did not appear alongside search results related to student loans. Two years later, the Federal Trade Commission launched an effort with 11 states and the District of Columbia to combat student loan relief scams. The cases remain a focus of enforcement, said Michelle Grajales, a staff attorney in the FTC’s division of financial practices.
“Scammers read the news, too,” Grajales said. “They follow those trends as well and, unfortunately, account for them in their pitches to consumers.”