St. Louis, Mo., Mar. 14, 2017 – Better Business Bureau (BBB) is advising consumers to be cautious when dealing with Student Loan Forgiveness Agency, a 10-month-old St. Charles company that claims to help clients reduce or eliminate their student loan debt.
Ashley Ezell is the company’s owner and CEO. Ezell, whose full name is Ashley Nicole Ezell, has been a defendant in two civil cases in which she was sued for nonpayment of student loans.
Specifically, BBB is concerned that the business’ name implies it can completely erase a client’s student loan debt, even though such loan forgiveness is rare. In addition, BBB is concerned that the business could be violating federal law by taking upfront fees for its services.
The business has an “F” rating with BBB, the lowest possible, because of concerns over its business model.
Michelle Corey, BBB St. Louis president and CEO, said consumers should be wary of any company that claims special expertise in reducing student loan debt, especially if the business demands upfront payments without first reducing the debt.
“Federal prosecutors have been very aggressive in going after so-called student debt relief companies in recent years,” Corey said. “These schemes have taken millions of dollars from consumers who are desperate to reduce or eliminate their student loan payments.”
BBB became aware of Ezell and Student Loan Forgiveness Agency after a prospective client became suspicious of what the client saw as promises that seemed “too good to be true.”
The prospective client said Ezell assured her in a phone conversation she could get her student loans forgiven “100 percent.” When the woman asked Ezell directly whether she could reduce her debt to zero, the woman said Ezell replied, “definitely.”
The woman said Ezell instructed her to stop making her regular loan payments and, instead, make payments to Student Loan Forgiveness Agency. She said Ezell told her that her only obligation was to pay the firm $1,000 and her debt “would all be forgiven.
“She said just leave it to her,” the woman said. “Who doesn’t want to get rid of their student loan?”
The woman later researched loan reduction rules on her own and determined she did not qualify for a loan forgiveness program. At that point, she stopped corresponding with Ezell.
Ezell registered Student Loan Forgiveness Agency LLC with the Missouri secretary of state’s office in May 2016. The business’ website, slfagency.com, was registered five months later.
The civil cases against Ezell were filed in 2014 and 2016.
In the first case, a judge in Warren County ordered Ezell in July 2015 to pay National Collegiate Student Loan Trust $40,300 in principal and interest for reneging on a student loan. National Collegiate Student Loan Trust alleged that Ezell had made no payments since 2010 on what originally was a $76,000 loan.
In the second case, Ezell’s attorney argued she should not have to repay a $58,000 loan because the 10-year statute of limitations had expired. While Ezell admitted to taking out that 2005 loan, she maintained she had never made any payments and the allowable time for collecting the debt had expired. That case was dismissed by both parties in January.
A copy of a Student Loan Forgiveness Agency agreement, obtained by BBB, asks for a lump sum payment of $1,000 or four $250 payments spread over several months. The agreement requires an initial payment within two weeks. Federal law requires that at least one debt be renegotiated, settled or reduced before a fee can be collected for debt relief services. That requirement is not included in the company’s agreement.
The company contends that it is not, in fact, a “debt consolidation company or a law firm” and simply provides document preparation services to assist consumers in applying for Department of Education debt assistance programs.
In what the agreement terms an “important disclosure” section, the company states: “You may, of course, try to complete your applications and consolidate your loans yourself without paying anyone a fee.” It describes the fee as “similar to you paying a tax preparer to do your taxes for you.”
It also states: “Please note that the company does not expressly imply warranty, nor represent a guarantee that it will be able to reduce your total student loan debt or monthly payments.”
At the same time, however, the company’s website appears to indicate it will eliminate a client’s loan debt: “By signing with our agency, you are authorizing our agents to assess and handle the paperwork and processes involved in attaining your loan forgiveness.”
A man identifying himself as Charles Bryant, acting manager of Student Loan Forgiveness Agency, acknowledged the company takes upfront fees for its services. “We have to have some sort of payment upfront to be a viable business,” he said.
But when asked about regulations barring upfront fees in debt collection cases, Bryant deferred to Ezell. Despite Bryant’s statement and company documents to the contrary, Ezell told BBB “I do not collect any money until all work is completed.”
Ezell called all references to her past civil cases “not appropriate.” She said the civil cases have been settled, and she is making payments on the Warren County case. She said she would ask her attorney to respond to further questions from BBB, but BBB has not been contacted.
Bryant, who said the company has worked with about 100 clients thus far, said he did not believe the company’s name is misleading. “Generally, it is not an immediate forgiveness,” he said of the company’s work. “Instead, it can be a 240-month program in which the government takes over a portion of the payments.”
He also said: “We adhere to all laws and regulations of the Department of Education and the federal government.”
BBB offers the following tips to consumers hoping to reduce their student loan debt:
St. Louis Area Media Contacts: Chris Thetford, Vice President-Communications, (314) 584-6743 or (314) 681-4719 (cell), firstname.lastname@example.org
Shellie Kreter, PR & Communications Manager, (314) 584-6723 or (314) 348-5451 (cell), email@example.com
Bill Smith, Investigator, (314) 584-6727, firstname.lastname@example.org
Columbia media contact: Sean Spence, Columbia Regional Director, (573) 886-8965, email@example.com
Cape Girardeau media contact: Joey Keys, Cape Girardeau Regional Director, (573) 803-3191, firstname.lastname@example.org
Quincy media contact: Mara Clingingsmith, BBB Quincy Regional Director, (217) 209-3972 or (217) 242-6272 (cell), email@example.com
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