Cuomo Subpoenas Loan Companies Over Marketing Practices to Students
For the past eight months, New York State’s attorney general, Andrew M. Cuomo, has been criticizing student-loan companies for how they pursue business relations with colleges. Now he is finding fault with how they go after students.
Mr. Cuomo announced this month a new round of 33 subpoenas to companies he suspects of using misleading marketing practices, such as offering false gift cards and rebate offers, and creating solicitation letters designed to look like official government notices.
“Reforming the student-loan industry,” Mr. Cuomo said in a written statement, “requires investigation of all aspects of this market to ensure that one reform, like cleaning up preferred-lender lists, is more than just a thumb in the dike causing the bad practices to shift to another area of the market.”
Mr. Cuomo’s latest round of subpoenas prompted some in the student-loan industry, despite their wariness about challenging him, to question whether the attorney general’s campaign was fueling some of the very practices he decries or being unfair toward companies that already have agreed to clean up their practices.
Recipients of the subpoenas include several companies — like Sallie Mae, Nelnet, JPMorgan Chase & Company, Bank of America, Wells Fargo, and Student Loan Xpress — that have already reached negotiated settlements with Mr. Cuomo’s office over their student-loan practices.
As part of those settlements, the companies accepted Mr. Cuomo’s proposed “code of conduct,” setting out guidelines for their future conduct in the student-loan business.
Lenders are expected to cooperate with the new subpoenas, though they have a right to be puzzled by them, said John Dean, special counsel to the Consumer Bankers Association, which represents the student-loan industry’s largest members.
“The subpoenas took the lenders by surprise because many of them had fully cooperated in the first phase of the investigation, have implemented the code of conduct, have been living under it, and had assumed that their practices were OK going forward,” Mr. Dean said.
Mr. Cuomo, in his announcement of the 33 subpoenas, cited a series of instances in which he believes lenders are using direct-marketing companies “to entice young borrowers seeking college loans.”
As examples, he alleged that lenders, including JPMorgan Chase, were “mailing phony offers designed to look like official letters issued by the federal government and operating deceptive Web sites designed to look like the federal government.”
He also alleged that Nelnet and Student Loan Xpress were “mailing fake checks or false rebate offers on current loans,” and that Wells Fargo was “holding sweepstakes to entice students to take out loans with the company.”
The attorney general began outlining complaints against the student-loan industry earlier this year, focusing initially on his belief that college aid administrators were making lender recommendations to their students on the basis of their colleges’ financial relations with the lenders.
Dozens of colleges and loan companies have agreed to halt such practices, and the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators has agreed to impose stricter ethics guidelines on itself and its members.
At the same time, a higher-education lawyer representing the association, Sheldon E. Steinbach, began warning that Mr. Cuomo’s actions could harm students in the long run by making them less willing to trust college aid administrators and more likely to make their own judgments about various loan offers.
That, in turn, would leave students more vulnerable to the types of marketing practices now being condemned by Mr. Cuomo, said Mr. Steinbach, who is with the Washington law firm Dow Lohnes PLLC.
“If you curtail the ability of colleges to provide neutral advice,” he said, “you then open up the floodgates to private lenders and others who will fill any vacuum because there is money to be made.”
By Paul Basken