Q&A: Watch out for shady companies promising to help you repay student loans

Dear Liz: I’m 32 and have a little over $100,000 in student debt from undergraduate and graduate school. I’m trying to get my professional life on track, and I can’t figure out how to pay the loans off. Everything I see online seems shady. What are the questions I need to be asking myself? What are the things I should be searching for on the Internet to help me get control of my financial situation?

Answer: “Shady” is exactly the right word to describe many of the companies promising student loan debt relief. They’re making false promises and charging troubled borrowers fat fees for government help that’s available for free. Many of these outfits get disciplined in one state, only to pop up in another.

If you’re struggling to pay federal student loans, you have several options for making the payments more manageable. You can research income-based repayment programs at StudentLoans.gov. Private student loans don’t have the same consumer protections or numerous repayment options, but you can contact your lenders directly to see what they offer.

The amount of debt you have is large but not insurmountable, especially if it qualified you for a well-paying job.

You don’t have to rush to pay off the federal student loans because those offer low, fixed rates, but you may want to prioritize paying off variable-rate private loans.

Also, don’t let your concern about your debt prevent you from saving for retirement. That, too, will be expensive, and the longer you wait to contribute to a retirement fund, the harder it will be to catch up.

Q&A: The old magazine scam is alive and well. Here’s how to fight back

Dear Liz: I got scammed by a magazine company a year ago. I thought the call was about two magazines I wanted to stop as I was moving. The woman talked fast and took me through the steps with my bank card (which was stupid of me, I now know) as if she was helping and at the end she said, “Oh, those are not our magazines.” Two weeks later I was receiving about eight magazines I do not want. I changed my bank card so the withdrawals would stop, but I get so many collection calls. I hang up and block that number, but then I get more. My bank manager said consumers don’t have to pay for what they don’t want. I have told the collectors that, but they still send bills for $1,200 for three years of magazines.

Answer: Don’t expect collectors for scam artists to help you out. Amy Nofziger, regional director for the AARP Foundation, recommends you contact your state’s attorney general to file a complaint.

“Magazine subscriptions like this are still a huge complaint and the AGs need to know about it, so they [can] file enforcement against the company if needed,” Nofziger said.

You must follow certain procedures to request that the debt collection agency stop contacting you. The AG’s office may be able to help or there may be a separate collection agency board you need to contact. The Federal Trade Commission also has guidance at www.consumer.ftc.gov/articles/0149-debt-collection.

You also can call and speak to a trained volunteer at the AARP Fraud Watch Network who can help you through the steps. Its number is (877) 908-3360 and you can learn more at www.aarp.org/FraudWatchNetwork.