By Jon Delano

INDIANA, Pa. (KDKA) — It took Stephanie Bearer about six months until she realized she was the victim of a student loan scam.

“We’re pretty smart people. I was on National Honor Society, graduated 4.0 GPA, top of my class,” Stephanie, who lives about 20 miles from Indiana, Pennsylvania, told KDKA money editor Jon Delano.

Like many, the 23-year-old graphic design graduate of Pittsburgh Technical College was saddled with student debt.

“I was up over $50, $60,000 in debt,” she said.

After graduation, she had to pay $500 a month in loan repayments.

“I was like, something has to be done. There has to be some way that I can consolidate, get my interest lowered. There has to be something,” Stephanie said.

That’s when she became vulnerable to scams.

“Companies will post enticing ads online, through social media, and contact people who fit that demographic directly by email with enticing offers,” says Caitlin Driscoll, of the Better Business Bureau of Western Pennsylvania.

Using social media, the scam artists target millennials, saying just pay them a smaller monthly fee and they will fix everything.

Stephanie first signed papers with Square One Resolutions.

“I would quit paying my student loans. I would leave it in their hands. They would contact Sallie Mae and negotiate with them,” she said.

It seemed like a good deal, so Stephanie signed up with another company, Student Loan Solutions, for a second student loan.

“You think they’re really going to do everything they can to help you, and really, they’re just out to get your money, obviously,” she added.

Between the two, Stephanie lost over $2,000 until she realized none of her money was paying down her debts.

Most people think it’s the elderly and uneducated who get scammed the most. But recent studies, including one from the Better Business Bureau, say, not true.

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It’s young people and middle-aged people, college educated, who are the most likely victims.

Robert Farrington, founder of College Investor in San Diego, says student debt and loan scams are growing.

“There’s over $1.3 trillion in student loan debt right now in America,” says Farrington.

“”The sad part is that while there are some reputable companies that do help people get out of student loan debt, there are many that are not,” Farrington said.

So how do you avoid the scams?

First, check out the free services available to you.

“By going through their student loan service company or by going online to StudentLoans.gov and accessing resources for free,” says Farrington.

Second, if you’re attracted to a debt relief service that charges a fee, warns Driscoll, “Definitely check with the Better Business Bureau. Do your due diligence, research on the internet.”

Third, watch for the red flags.

“If any company says they have a relationship with the Department of Education, that is typically false. Only your loan servicer has that relationship,” he says. “At the same time, any company that says they can guarantee you loan forgiveness or guarantee you a certain payment amount is also probably false.”

Finally, beware of the smooth talkers.

Stephanie: “They sound very reassuring, genuine, on the phone.”

Delano: “But total scam artists?”

Stephanie: “Total scam artists. Very good at it.”

Be cautious because if you’re victimized, the consequences are long-lasting.

“My credit is pretty ruined because of it,” Stephanie said.

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