Lackluster communication and poor customer service from student loan servicing companies are plaguing U.S. military troops deployed overseas and the parents of deceased soldiers, according to a federal agency analysis released Tuesday. The new report compiles more than 1,300 complaints the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has received from military borrowers since October 2012, at a time when the agency is weighing broader protections for student debtors nationwide.
The report, “Overseas & Underserved,” outlines the difficulties borrowers have encountered in sorting out their loan payments with private firms, on top of demanding day-to-day responsibilities.
"For our overseas military population, their missions often leave them without the luxury to vigorously monitor their credit and make endless calls to resolve errors based on servicing failures," say co-authors Holly Petraeus, the agency's assistant director for service member affairs, and Seth Frotman, the CFPB's acting student loan ombudsman. "Service members should not have to find themselves distracted from their military assignments by a mishandled payment, an unanswered deferment request or a botched transfer."
The CFPB is conducting a separate wide-ranging public inquiry into the student loan servicing industry, citing concerns that bad loan servicing is contributing to growing default on student debt. Unlike with mortgages, for example, there are no overarching regulations that set standards for student loan servicing. CFPB officials have often referred to service members as “canaries in the coal mine” for detecting troubling industry trends, in part because laws do guarantee troops a number of strict protections on loans.
Last year, after the CFPB referred military complaints to other federal regulators, the Department of Justice hammered out a $60 million settlement with servicer Navient (formerly a division of Sallie Mae), resolving alleged violations of the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act. The law provides for interest rate caps for active-duty troops. In June, nearly 78,000 military borrowers started receiving compensation checks as a result of that agreement.
But the CFPB report says that service members “continue to face setbacks when they seek to exercise military protections earned through their service.”
Common problems outlined in the report include requests for military deferments of monthly loan payments that are “denied without adequate explanation,” as well as an “unnecessary struggle” to obtain interest rate reductions under the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act.
The report doesn't distinguish between complaints about federal loan servicing and private loan servicing. "These are issues that cut across the entire student loan portfolio, whether that is private or federal,” Frotman said.
One borrower wrote to the agency last summer -- two weeks before his scheduled deployment -- because he still had not heard back from his servicer about applying the SCRA protections to his loan. “I need help,” the borrower wrote. “I can’t continue to fight this when my attention should be on matters that will literally involve life-or-death decisions.”
Parents who co-signed loans with children later killed in action “may be left on the hook and out of options,” the report says. Families told the CFPB that the process for requesting loan forgiveness was opaque, and that denials were not fully explained. “For families mourning the loss of a child killed in combat,” the report says, “these detours and dead-ends can prolong an already painful process.”
The report says that many of the issue borrowers complained about led to negative credit reporting -- which can then affect a soldier's ability to maintain security clearances during active duty. "Diligently protecting and maintaining one’s credit history is a necessity for any consumer," the report says.
The CFPB is accepting public comments related to its student loan servicing inquiry until July 13.