If you're in default—behind on your payments—on a private student loan, the lender will likely come after you for payment. The collection methods and tools available to private student loan lenders are very different from the methods and tools available to federal student loan lenders. It's important for borrowers to know which tools private lenders can and can't use.
Students may take out more than one loan, and these may be different types. If a lender or debt collector is trying to collect on a student loan, your first step should be to determine what type of loan is at issue.
For federal student loans, visit the National Student Loan Data System, which is the Department of Education’s central database for student aid. You can get information about what kind of loan you have, as well as loan or grant amounts, outstanding balances, loan status, and disbursements. You can also go to My Federal Student Aid to find information about your federal student loans and to get contact information for the loan servicer or holder for your loans.
To find out if you have private student loans and to get information about them, check your loan documents.
A private lender can't start collection activity on your loan unless you're in default. For federal student loans, “default” is defined by federal laws. For private student loans, “default” is defined in your loan contract.
You should have received paperwork when you took out your loan which included all of the terms between you and your lender. If you do not have the loan contract, contact your lender to get a copy. Every loan contract is different, but common triggers for default are:
Unlike federal student loan lenders, private lenders must go to court to get a money judgment against you before using collection tools like garnishment. (Money judgments are explained in more detail below.) Private lenders usually attempt out-of-court collection before going to court. Most private lenders will hire a third-party debt collector to contact you and attempt to collect the debt.
Lenders or debt collectors usually attempt to collect a defaulted student loan by:
There are limits to how far debt collectors can go in trying to get you to pay up. The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) prohibits debt collectors from using deceptive, abusive, or harassing tactics to collect debts. The FDCPA places limits on collector communications and, among other things, prohibits false representations, such as claiming that the lender has legal rights that it does not have. For example, a debt collector cannot claim that a private student loan lender can seize disability benefits or tax refunds—those actions are only available in collections on a federal student loan. (To learn more about what the FDCPA prohibits, read Illegal Debt Collection Practices.)
Depending on the terms of your loan contract, you might have to pay the “reasonable” costs of debt collection activities. If that is the case, and you do not dispute your debt, you might want to contact the lender and attempt to establish a payment plan that you can afford. (Learn more about repayment options for private student loans.)
Unfortunately, many borrowers with private student loans have had difficulty communicating with private student loan lenders about modifying loan terms or establishing payment plans. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) website offers assistance in communicating with your lender.
If a private student loan lender wants to use additional collection tools such as garnishment, the lender must file a lawsuit against you in court and get a money judgment. The lender needs to prove to a judge that:
If you're served with a complaint that seeks a money judgment against you, consult a lawyer. The rules for these types of lawsuits vary by state and it is important that a lender show all of the required evidence when seeking a money judgment.
Once the student loan lender gets a money judgment against you, it can use other types of collection methods. These methods include:
Each state has rules governing the procedures for post-judgment collection. States also have laws which protect certain types of property from collection—these are called exemptions. (To learn more, read Using Exemptions to Protect Property From Judgment Creditors.)