Source: NY Times: Business
Your Money Adviser: Consumer Groups Take Aim at Navient for Phone Harassment

Your Money Adviser

By ANN CARRNS

A half-dozen consumer groups have asked the federal government to take action against Navient, a student loan servicer, and have accused the company of “harassing and abusing” borrowers with repeated automated telephone calls, even after being asked to stop.

In a request filed on Monday with the Federal Communications Commission, the National Consumer Law Center and other groups accused Navient of calling borrowers’ cellphones multiple times a day, and often many times a week, totaling hundreds or in some cases thousands of calls over a period of months or years.

The groups asked the F.C.C. to take enforcement action against Navient for violating the Telephone Consumer Protection Act by making repeated “robocalls” to student loan borrowers and other consumers. The letter asks the agency to force Navient “to stop making robocalls to consumers from whom it does not have consent to call, or consumers whose consent has been revoked.”

“This is really problematic,” said Margot Saunders, senior counsel with the National Consumer Law Center, which specializes in representing low-income clients.

Navient is the nation’s largest servicer of student loans, managing accounts and processing payments for more than 12 million borrowers of federal and private student loans. But the company’s practices have come under fire: The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and two state attorneys general sued the company earlier this year, claiming vast mismanagement of borrower accounts.

Under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act, automated calls or texts to a cellphone generally require a consumer’s consent, Ms. Saunders said. But in 2015, as part of federal budget legislation, Congress carved out an exception to the telephone act for collectors of federal debt, including student loans.

The exception, however, is subject to rules to be issued by the F.C.C. outlining protections for consumers. Last year, the F.C.C. proposed rules that included limiting automated calls and texts to student borrowers to three a month. But those rules have not been formally carried out, and the delay has muddied the waters and encouraged servicers to be more aggressive, Ms. Saunders said.

Separately, the new rules are being challenged by a group of loan servicers, including Navient, that said they would “hamstring” servicers in their attempts to collect from borrowers.

The consumer groups argued, however, that since the new rules have not been put in effect, the old rules still applied — and Navient was “flouting” them.

In responses to numerous court cases brought against Navient by student borrowers over repeated phone calls, Ms. Saunders said, Navient argued that its calls are permissible because of an exception created by the 2015 budget act.

“Navient has a well-established, positive track record of supporting student borrowers to succeed in repayment, and we respect our customers’ communications preferences,” Nikki Lavoie, a Navient spokeswoman, said in an emailed statement. Calls are an important way to help struggling borrowers enroll in federal repayment programs that lower payments based on income and help avoid defaults, she said, adding, “The only borrower we can’t help is the one we can’t reach.”

The consumer groups’ request to the F.C.C. includes samples of consumer complaints filed with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, detailing the calls. One consumer reported being called “in excess of 12 times per day.” Another complaint claimed the consumer was “called from the same number 14 times in a 30 minutes period.”

“The company has called past co-workers, childhood friends, and mother-in-law,” one complaint stated. “Some of these people I haven’t spoken to in years nor know their phone numbers myself.”

One business complained that a Navient subsidiary has contacted the office “multiple times per day” in reference to a worker’s personal debt, despite being told repeatedly that workers were not allowed to take personal calls.

In a lawsuit filed in October, a woman said she was repeatedly called on her cellphone by a servicer looking for someone named “Mary,” even though that was not her name, she didn’t know the woman being sought and she told the servicer to stop calling.

The National Consumer Law Center filed the request along with Public Citizen, the Center for Responsible Lending, the Consumer Federation of America, Public Knowledge, and Higher Ed, Not Debt.

The F.C.C. declined to comment.

Here are some questions and answers about robocalls for student loans:

Where can I complain if I am receiving repeated calls from a student loan servicer?

Consumers can file complaints with the Federal Communications Commission, which also offers some consumer suggestions on its website.

What if a servicer ignores my requests to stop calling?

In some cases, calls may stop only after the issuance of a formal “cease and desist” order from a court, Ms. Saunders said. Lawyers who handle cases under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act can be found on the website of the National Association of Consumer Advocates.

Are there any efforts to reduce robocalls generally?

Consumers Union is sponsoring a petition demanding that cellphone companies provide call-blocking technology to customers. The group also suggests various smartphone apps that may help block calls, although it has not tested them.

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