70-year-old woman with $134,000 in student loan debt tricked into student loan scam

WISCONSIN RAPIDS, Wis (WSAW) -- Imagine paying back your student loans, never missing a payment only to find out you have been scammed. One Wisconsin Rapids woman said it happened to her and now U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin is looking into what she can do to help.

At 70-years-old, Anna Wheelock would like to retire, but her student loans are preventing her from doing so. After graduating from UW-Madison in 1998 with her Master of Science and a bachelor's in Rehabilitation and Psychology she had $77,000 in federal student loan debt to pay back.

“It was an excellent education,” said Wheelock. “But it was also very expensive. And for my career field, I had to begin at a low-paying position. My first job paid under $25,000 a year but it reflected my master’s research for my thesis which was working with underserved communities and women.”

Because of her income, Wheelock has been on an income-driven payment plan since graduation and says she has never missed a single payment. Her loans were only in forbearance once because of personal obligations, however, that never prevented her from paying on time.

“I understood that the loans were collecting interest, but I always thought I would end up making more money. I was a therapist and I worked with schools.”

Over the years, Wheelock has worked with non-profits who help people battling with substance abuse and addiction. With her income, she was only able to pay the interest on her loans. Now 22 years later, Wheelock has $134,000 to pay back.

“It feels hopeless. I feel defeated and sad. The process is frustrating,” added Wheelock.

But, the increase in debt didn't happen overnight. A scam played a big role. In 2014, Wheelock was contacted by a company claiming to provide student loan forgiveness programs for those who work in public service. Given Wheelock’s experience with working with schools and having made 125 qualifying payments, she figured she would be able to apply.

“I had no reason to believe this wasn’t the government. I never would have thought that people would be scamming off student loans,” explained Wheelock. "They knew so much information about me and my loan debt."

After applying to get into the program, the scammer told Wheelock that she would need to pay them the entry fee to be approved which totaled $1,200. Wheelock told NewsChannel 7 that she willingly paid under the belief that after a few months her debt would be forgiven by the government. The scammer had her sign the loans over to them.

“A year later, after my son passed I was going through a lot. I needed to make sure that my loans were taken care of financially so I contacted the number I had for my student loans,” explained Wheelock. “That's when the government told me there are no entry fees for their loan forgiveness program."

After asking follow-up questions regarding her account, she found out that she was scammed and that it has been months without her making a payment, even though she thought it was taken care of. And without payments on the interest of her loans, the price quickly jumped.

“I was going through a lot in my personal life at the time. I had no reason to believe I was being scammed.”

According to Northcentral Technical College, student loan forgiveness scams have become more common over the years. Every time the federal government shuts one scam down, it seems as if another one reappears.

“These type of scams are aggressive advertisements that target student loan borrowers with claims of student loan debt relief or student loan discharge services for a fee,” explained Jeff Cichon, Director of Financial Aid at Northcentral Technical College.

Scams such as the one Wheelock became a victim to comes in many different forms like mail, email, unsolicited phone calls and even Facebook advertisements. The best way to make sure you aren’t being scammed is to contact your student loan servicer directly and never provide personal information over the phone.

Another good rule of thumb to follow is to trust websites that have “.gov” at the end of the URL. If a website is “.com” or even “.org” it increases the chances of being a scam. Lastly, if it seems too good to be true, it just might be. Ask very clear and direct questions that maybe a scammer wouldn't be able to answer.

As for Wheelock, she is not expecting anything for free but is looking into federal loan forgiveness programs that could help reduce her debt or at least her monthly expenses on her student loan amount. She plans to continue paying on her loans but hopes she doesn't have to continue using her social security to do so.

“I am very excited to have been contacted by Senator Baldwin and I look forward to seeing what will come from it,” said Wheelock. “Even if it doesn't help me, it will help others down the line.”

For information on the Federal Student Forgiveness Loan Program CLICK HERE