If you’re a recent college graduate and decide to consult Google about your student loan situation by searching, for example, “drowning & student debt & eye balls”—beware. You may find that pay day lenders, who make short-term loans at high interest rates, suddenly know all about your dire financial situation. 

The dirty work is done by lead generators—websites that attract consumer interest with products or services based on their searches, then collect the consumer’s information and turn it over to a third party.

In the case of a debt-addled graduate, the lead generator may direct them to a website promising zero-interest loans to make their student loan payments--and then sell their personal information to a pay day lender.

If you think that scenario is improbably creepy, think again.

A recent piece in The Atlantic by technology writer Adrienne LaFrance, entitled “People’s Deepest, Darkest Google Searches are Being Used Against Them,” detailed how the Google searches of financially vulnerable, often debt-ridden people are used to direct them to shoddy products.

The article discusses how--despite Google’s rules banning predatory financial ads--online lead generators are able to collect information from users’ searches and direct them to sites where they are asked to input information that is then sold to the same predatory finance companies that Google bans. 

Luckily, the Federal Trade Commission has honed in on and brought enforcement actions against online lead generators that have been deceptive, lacking in disclosures, and in violation of laws against robocalls, in which computerized dialers deliver pre-recorded messages. 

That offers some hope that students struggling with debt can at least do so in privacy.

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