LendEDU, a website that purportedly offers unbiased reviews, ratings and rankings of lenders and other financial services providers, was actually selling its ranking to the “highest bidder” and concocting fake reviews of the site itself, according to the Federal Trade Commission.
The FTC announced Monday that it is filing charges against LendEDU, a loan marketplace, claiming that the site “misled consumers to believe their website provided objective product information, when in fact they offered higher rankings and ratings to companies that paid for placement.”
According to the FTC, LendEDU “falsely claimed” that its website provided “objective,” “accurate” and “unbiased” information about financial products, including student loans, personal loans, credit cards and mortgages.
More specifically, the FTC claims that LendEDU “misrepresented that the information on its website was not affected by compensation from advertisers.”
Beyond that, the FTC also claims that the company “touted positive consumer reviews about their company and website that, in fact, were written by LendEDU employees or their friends, family members, and associates.”
According to the FTC, LendEDU’s website made it appear that the company was providing vetted, independent rankings and ratings of the “best” lenders in various categories, but the pages in question were allegedly bought and paid for by the company’s lender advertisers.
The FTC alleges that in spite of LendEDU’s claims that its reviews and rankings are “objective,” “honest,” “accurate,” “unbiased,” and not based on compensation and the site’s lengthy explanations of the company’s supposed ratings methodology, the company’s executives regularly requested that advertisers pay more to increase their rankings on the site.
According to the FTC, Nathaniel Matherson, the company’s co-founder and CEO; Matthew Lenhard, the company’s co-founder and chief technology officer; and Alexander Coleman, the company’s vice president of product, “either directly requested additional compensation from financial services companies in exchange for better placements” on the company’s website, or were aware that such requests were taking place.
In one instance, the FTC claims that Matherson “asked one student loan refinance company to pay $9.50 per click to retake the number one ranking after falling to number three.”
Such actions were allegedly commonplace at LendEDU.
From the FTC:
Respondents later asked the same student loan refinance company to increase its payments to $16 per click “to maintain the #1 position on our site.” In an email to the company, Respondent Coleman wrote: “We want to keep [your company] positioned as the #1 lender on our site, but we need to justify the move from a business perspective.” The company agreed to pay $15 per click, and Respondent kept the company ranked number one and positioned first on the rate table.
According to the FTC, LendEDU didn’t just offer to move companies up higher if they paid more, the site also dropped companies lower in its rankings if the companies didn’t pay up.
Again, from the FTC:
Respondents’ paid placement policies and practices have resulted in some previously highly ranked companies dropping spots for refusing to pay for their position. For example, Respondents ranked one student loan refinance company number two in the rankings and listed it second in the rate table for several months. When the company refused to pay more to be placed in the second spot, Respondents dropped the company’s ranking to number five or lower and listed it fifth or lower in the rate table.
Beyond that, LendEDU also allegedly made up or helped make up fake reviews of the company’s services on both its own site and other sites.
The FTC alleges that LendEDU and its operators “misrepresented that consumer reviews on its website and third-party websites reflected actual experiences of impartial consumers.”
According to the FTC, in most cases, the reviews were written or made up by LendEDU employees, their family or friends, or other individuals with personal or professional relationships with LendEDU.
For example, reviews about LendEDU’s website and customer service appear on third-party review platforms, including trustpilot.com, a site that allows users to select a star rating when reviewing a company.
According to the FTC, of the 126 reviews on trustpilot.com, 90% were actually written or made up by LendEDU employees or their family, friends or other associates. Each of those reviews also gave five-star ratings for LendEDU.
The company also had testimonials from supposed users on its site, but according to the FTC, those reviews were fake too.
Much of the FTC’s complaint focuses on LendEDU’s student loan segment, and the company initially specialized as a student loan marketplace before expanding into other products.
Included among those are mortgages and home equity loans. On the site now, LendEDU lists all of its advertisers, including those that advertise in the mortgage and home equity section.
The list of mortgage and home equity advertisers includes the following companies: Credible, Discover, EasyKnock, Figure, LendingTree, loanDepot, SpringEQ, Unison and Padspring.
There is no specific mention of any of those companies (or any others) in the FTC’s complaint, so it’s unknown which companies engaged in LendEDU’s alleged pay to play scheme.
HousingWire attempted to contact each of the companies listed as advertisers in the mortgage and home equity section, but as of publication, only one of the companies had responded.
In a statement provided to HousingWire, LendingTree said the company learned of the allegations against LendEDU when the FTC announced its action. The company also said that it is “currently investigating” the matter.
This article will be updated should any of the other companies respond.
This is also not the first time that LendEDU and its founders have found themselves in some trouble over presenting allegedly fake information to the public.
In 2018, The Chronicle of Higher Education revealed that Drew Cloud, the founder of The Student Loan Report, a website that provided advice and insight on student loans, was actually a fabrication of Matherson and others.
“Drew Cloud” frequently emailed journalists, including those at HousingWire, with insights and reports on student loans, but Cloud was created by the LendEDU’s parent company, Shop Tutors.
And now, the proprietors of the company are in trouble again.
“LendEDU told consumers that its financial product rankings were based on objective and unbiased information about the quality of the product being offered, but in fact LendEDU sold its rankings to the highest bidder,” said Andrew Smith, FTC Director of the Bureau of Consumer Protection. “These misrepresentations undermine consumer trust, and we will hold lead generators like LendEDU accountable for their false promises of objectivity.”
The FTC also proposed a proposed settlement order that would prohibit the company and its operators from making the same types of misrepresentations cited in the FTC’s complaint. The proposed order also requires the company to pay $350,000 for its alleged actions.
HousingWire also attempted to contact LendEDU and Matherson directly for comment on the FTC’s allegations, but the company has not responded either. This article will be updated should the company respond.
To read the FTC’s full complaint against LendEDU, click here.