Discover Bank and its affiliates are under fire from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) for illegal private student loan servicing practices.
According to the agency, Discover overstated the minimum amounts due on billing statements and denied consumers information they needed to obtain federal income tax benefits. The company also engaged in illegal debt collection tactics, including calling consumers early in the morning and late at night.
The CFPB’s order requires Discover to refund $16 million to consumers, pay a $2.5 million penalty, and improve its billing, student loan interest reporting, and collection practices.
“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.”
Discover Bank's student loan affiliates -- The Student Loan Corporation and Discover Products, Inc. -- are also charged in this action. Beginning in 2010, Discover expanded its private student loan portfolio by acquiring more than 800,000 accounts from Citibank.
As a loan servicer, Discover is responsible for providing basic services to borrowers, including accurate periodic account statements, supplying year-end tax information, and contacting borrowers regarding overdue amounts.
Huge debt market
Student loans make up the nation’s second largest consumer debt market. 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 CFPB 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.
According to CFPB, thousands of consumers encountered problems as soon as their loans became due and Discover gave them account statements that overstated their minimum payment. Discover denied consumers information that they would have needed to obtain tax benefits and called consumers’ mobile phones at inappropriate times to contact them about their debts.
Specifically, the CFPB found that the company:
- Overstated the minimum amount due in billing statements
- Misrepresented on its website the amount of student loan interest paid
- Illegally called consumers early in the morning and late at night, often excessively
- Engaged in illegal debt collection tactics
Among the terms of the consent order, Discover must:
- Return $16 million to more than 100,000 borrowers: Specifically, Discover will:
- 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 percent 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 5 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.
- Accurately represent the minimum periodic payment: Discover cannot misrepresent to consumers the minimum periodic payment owed, the amount of interest paid, or any other factual material concerning the servicing of their loans.
- Send clear and accurate student loan interest and tax information to borrowers: Discover must send borrowers the IRS W-9S form that it requires them to complete to receive a form 1098 from the company, and it must clearly explain its W-9S requirement to borrowers. Discover must also accurately state the amount of student loan interest borrowers paid during the year.
- Cease making calls to consumers before 8 a.m. or after 9 p.m.: Discover must contact overdue borrowers at reasonable times. This will be determined by the time zone of the consumer’s known residence or phone number, unless the consumer has expressly authorized Discover to call outside these hours.
- Pay $2.5 million civil penalty: Discover will pay $2.5 million to the CFPB’s Civil Penalty Fund.