By Bill Hudson

ST. PAUL, Minn. (WCCO) — The numbers are staggering: One in five Americans owes student loan debt. In fact, college loan debt has surpassed credit cards and is just behind home mortgages as the leading source of consumer debt.

The growing problem of student debt, coupled with a tight job picture, is giving rise to an industry aimed at helping customers deal with debt repayment. But it is also the reason the Minnesota Attorney General is suing a Florida company, claiming it is misleading customers into thinking it will eliminate their student debt.

The lawsuit against Student Aid Center, Inc., was filed in Hennepin County District Court on Wednesday.

The cost of college has shot up more than 1,000 percent since 1985. About 40 million Americans, roughly one in five, owes money on student loans.

It’s a big reason college graduates, like Owatonna school teacher Shallyn Slack, owes $65,000 in college loans.

“It’s been months of stress and trying to figure out how to overcome that,” Slack said.

She turned to the Student Aid Center in Florida for help. Its website promised her a way to forgive her debt for what seemed a modest price, about $1,500, paid to SAC.

“Angry, yup definitely! And I still have the debt. They didn’t help me, they just added more stress,” Slack said.

Now, Attorney General Lori Swanson has filed suit, claiming the Student Aid Center is engaging in “bait and switch” advertising and doing business as a debt relief company in Minnesota without proper licensing.

Swanson said that their tactics are misleading some 800 Minnesota customers by offering loan repayment, consolidation or forgiveness at a price, but in many cases not following through.

“It will promise loan forgiveness when it’s really submitting things like repayment plans and consolidations, where you consolidate multiple loans over a longer time but end up paying more interest,” Swanson said.

As many Minnesota graduates struggle with higher education debt, Swanson released an Instagram page showing the company’s co-owner, Damien Alvarez, living a life of wealth. One post claims that his company growing rapidly, earning $1 million per week.

Rebecca Ponz said SAC debt counselors even forged her signature on a form granting the company power of attorney in order to keep her from contacting her lender. Ponz said she felt pressured by the counselor’s sales pitch.

“I mean it was stuff that I knew better, but I didn’t realize that this wasn’t a federal company,” Ponz said.

WCCO-TV contacted Student Aid Center for a response to the state’s lawsuit, but never got a reply.

The lawsuit is asking for injunctive relief to stop the solicitation as well as restitution for customers.

It’s important to point out that anyone struggling with school loan debt can get free assistance from the Federal government.

You will find it on the Department of Education website.

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