If you never heard of LendEDU, you very likely might have spotted one of their many, many quirky surveys.
Take a recent one: Reportedly 62% of student loan borrowers actually would give up their right to vote in the 2020 presidential election if it meant their student loan debt was completely forgiven.
Really? Are we driven totally these days by self interest, greed and a bottom-line approach of how much is in it for me? Well, maybe more than might be evident to the naked eye.
LendEDU – which often uses online surveys of 1,000 adults – clearly had a gimmick to get its name out there in order to tout, among other products, ways to refinance student loans. The more you researched lending products at the site, the more they made money.
And, according to consumer watchdogs, LendEDU played a little loose at more than a few stops along the way.
The site, which was launched in 2014, claims to offer ways to compare the best student loan refinance lenders, the best mortgage lenders, the best picks for personal loans, the best auto loans. The Hoboken, N.J.-based company was pitched as a marketplace for a variety of financial products.
Yet what is the best anyway?
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Expecting unbiased rankings
Consumers might rightly imagine that top rankings would be based on objective, unbiased measures. But they would be wrong, according to an administrative complaint released in early February by the Federal Trade Commission.
"In fact, LendEDU sold its rankings to the highest bidder," said Andrew Smith, director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection in a statement.
Think of this as a "pay-for-play" online business model. Want to be the No. 1 lender? One student loan refinance company agreed to pay LendEDU $8.50 per click for a No. 1 spot and a spot on the rate table, according to the FTC complaint.
And then the same student loan refinance company was asked by LendEDU to nearly double its payments to $16 per click in order to hold onto that No. 1 ranking, according to the FTC filing.
Such glowing reviews
According to the FTC, the customer reviews couldn't be trusted either.
"Spent two minutes filling out a form and saved thousands of dollars," read one review.
Who wouldn't jump at a fast and easy chance to save big money? Especially when other consumers appear so happy with the results?
But LendEDU site touted "fake positive reviews," according to the FTC.
The FTC noted, "The vast majority of the reviewers do not appear to have used LendEDU."
Only 11 of the email addresses provided by LendEDU's 126 reviewers on Trustpilot, which is a third-party review platform, match email addresses that consumers provided to LendEDU, according to the FTC complaint.
"Of those 126 reviews, 111, or 90%, were written or made up by LendEDU employees or their family, friends, or other associates," according to the FTC.
One review from "Kenny" stated: “LendEDU showed me the light at the end of the tunnel. I was drowning in student loan debt then they showed up with a lifeboat and a warm blanket. The website was easy to navigate and with the help of their customer service team, I saved a lot of money refinancing. I can’t thank them enough and would recommend to anyone!”
Lovely. Such passion. Such imagery – a "lifeboat and a warm blanket" for someone drowning in student loan debt. But Kenny apparently had time on the job to write those glowing words.
The FTC noted, "The review written by 'Kenny' actually comes from a LendEDU employee using a fake name."
And if this doesn't make you sick as a consumer by now, here's another zinger that's not in the FTC complaint.
Back in April 2018, the Chronicle of Higher Education unraveled another unsettling development.
A top expert on student loan debt named Drew Cloud might have been quoted in The Washington Post and the Boston Globe about some crazy surveys – such as 27% of those surveyed would contract the Zika virus to live debt-free.
But, forgive me, as the old Joni Mitchell song suggests, we really didn't know "Cloud" at all.
The Chronicle wrote that it spent more than a week trying to verify Drew Cloud's very existence. And only then did the company confirm that Cloud was a fake.
Nate Matherson, CEO of LendEDU, told the the Chronicle then that Drew Cloud was a "pseudonym that a diverse group of authors at Student Loan Report LLC use to share experiences and information related to the challenges college students face with funding their education."
Nothing but a phony dude sending fake emails to journalists, pitching stories and email interviews. Just another show, leave 'em laughing when you go.
Matherson and other LendEDU employees did not return emails to provide a comment to the FTC's claims for this column.
It's not bad enough that consumers are already stressed out about their debt and really aren't all that certain what to do when it comes to refinancing their student loans.
Now, something that supposedly is designed to make things a bit clearer is overrun by clouded judgment.
In general, consumer websites can be useful resources to help people do their homework on various products, said Tom Widor, an FTC staff attorney in the division of financial practices at the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection.
But consumers still need to be aware that they may not be getting the whole story. As a result, he said, it's best to use multiple sources, consider the source of the content, and not give too much weight to just reading customer reviews.
"It really is difficult to know if reviews or other content are basically paid-for-play arrangements," Widor said.
He said the FTC monitors the marketplace for fake reviews, deceptive influence marketing and the like.
In October, for example, the FTC addressed a social media hoax where one firm, Devumi, sold fake followers to actors, athletes, musicians, writers and others who wanted to boost their appeal as influencers.
Under a proposed settlement order, LendEDU would be required to pay $350,000 and be prohibited from making the same types of misrepresentations cited in the FTC’s complaint.
They would need to disclose if compensation is involved in any rankings as well. Yes, I'd imagine that's something consumers would indeed like to know.
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: FTC warns loan comparison site sold rankings to highest bidders