ONLY ON 7: Ameritech Financial employee says embroiled student loan debt relief company was helping people

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- For the first time, we are hearing from a current employee of a Sonoma County student loan debt relief company whose CEO is in hot water with the Federal Trade Commission and the FBI.

Student loan debt is the second largest class of consumer debt in the United States. Last year, the Federal Trade Commission began cracking down on student loan debt relief scams. They called it "Operation Game of Loans."

RELATED: Sonoma County executive arrested for student loan debt relief scheme

Two weeks ago the FTC filed an injunction shutting down Ameritech Financial in Sonoma County. Last week, the feds arrested the company's CEO Brandon Frere at SFO as he prepared to board a flight to Cancun, Mexico.

On Wednesday, Frere is out of jail on house arrest and an employee who rose in the ranks from sales rep to operations trainer is speaking out.

"I didn't think we were hurting anybody," said Ethan Lowry.

Lowry says he joined Ameritech Financial around June of 2017, first as a sales rep enrolling clients who received mailers advertising student loan payment, reduction and forgiveness who would then call the company.

According to a criminal complaint, those clients paid Ameritech Financial $600 to $800 up front purportedly for the company to prepare and submit documents to enroll them in alternative repayment plans.

AB7 News asked Lowry if people who signed up for Ameritech Financial understood that their payments were not going towards their loans.

"I would say the vast majority of people did understand that. I know that there were probably quite a few people who didn't understand that," said Lowry.

The complaint also says Ameritech Financial charged monthly fees ranging from $49 to $99 for a financial education membership program.

RELATED: Sonoma County CEO accused in student loan debt relief scheme to be released on house arrest

"In my experience in customer service it was oftentimes unclear with the client that that was what was happening, that that was what that fee was for," said Lowry.

Lowry says he did tell clients they needed to keep paying their student loans; that the money they were paying to Ameritech Financial wasn't going towards them, but often those loans were placed in forbearance while the client's application for an alternative repayment plan was pending. During forbearance, clients could stop making loan payments but interest continued to accrue. That's something Lowry says he only told clients if they asked.

ABC7 News asked Lowry how clients would know to ask that question.

"I don't know," said Lowry.

He says the interest would have been forgiven anyway once clients qualified for an alternative repayment plan.

The government has a different take on Ameritech Financial.

According to that criminal complaint, sales reps amongst other misleading tactics, encouraged clients to inflate the number of family members they had to qualify for the alternative programs.

"I heard it, I never did it," said Lowry.

The criminal complaint says CEO Brandon Frere operated the fraudulent student loan debt relief scheme from 2014 to 2018, taking in about $28-million. Investigators say he moved millions of dollars from company accounts to his personal accounts and offshore accounts. He's now facing a wire fraud charge.

According to the criminal complaint, some Ameritech Financial clients are now further in debt due to interest on their loans.

"I believed we were helping people I believed the people I worked with were helping people," said Lowry.

Lowry has not been paid for his last two weeks of work before that injunction shutting the company down. Frere's attorney told ABC7 News he had no comment beyond what he said at court Monday. During Frere's initial appearance, his attorney said the Ameritech Financial CEO contacted the FTC in 2016 to make sure what he was doing was legit and got no response.

If you're someone who signed up with Ameritech Financial, we'd like to hear from you.

You can email reporter Melanie Woodrow at melanie.woodrow@abc.com or contact her through Facebook or Twitter.
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