NEW YORK (MainStreet) — Are you falling behind on student loan payments or worse, are you at the end of your last possible deferment? If so, you are a prime target for student loan debt consolidation scams.

In January, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced the creation of a new "student protection unit" to investigate the student loan "debt relief" industry. The Unit has already issued subpoenas to 13 student debt consolidation companies for claims of misleading advertising, high fees without appropriate notice and enrolling young adults in student debt relief programs that are available for free through the Federal government.

According to the Federal Reserve Board of New York, there are 37 million student loan borrowers with outstanding student loans today totaling approximately $902 billion. While reputable student loan consolidation can help make pay-back of several student loans more manageable by combining them into one lower loan payment with a new repayment term and interest rate, to student loan debt consolidation scammers, that's big business.

"Scammers are definitely taking advantage young adults' needs for student loan repayment options," says Reyna Gobel, student loan expert for and author of CliffsNotes Graduation Debt. "If you have Federal student loans, you automatically qualify for free debt consolidation programs offered by the U.S. Department of Education (ED), the agency that oversees federal student loan programs, which offers the best repayment plans and terms on Federal student loans."

Do you have Federal loans, private loans or both?

Gobel says if you have only Federal student loans you want to consolidate, then stick with the Federal government's student loan consolidation programs offered by the ED. Only with a Federal Direct Consolidation Loan will you retain the subsidy benefits of your original Federal student loans while lowering your payments and rolling them all into one payment with one lender, the U.S. Department of Education. You will be offered flexible repayment options depending on your specific financial or employment situation while retaining deferment options if applicable. Gobel stresses these federal student loan consolidation programs are free with no qualifying loan amounts or fees.

<"p>It would be a major financial mistake to lose your Federal student loan benefits and choices, as well as to pay fees and possibly higher interest rates by going with an outside company," warns Gobel.

What if you have private loans, too? Gobel suggests simply calling that lender (usually a reputable bank) and asking the company what options it offers for making your payments more manageable. <"/p>

No matter what, don't roll your Federal student loans into a debt consolidation coupled with private student loans with an outside company, because chances are, your interest rate average will be much higher due to the personal loans."

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has gotten together with the ED to warn those considering student loan debt consolidation with an outside company. Ask yourself these questions to determine if you're dealing with a student loan debt consolidation scam or rip-off.

Did you contact the student loan debt consolidation company?

"Chances are, if you didn't contact them, they are looking to sign you on to collect fees you would not have to pay by going through the Federal Student Loan Consolidation program or even through your own private lender for personal loans, and that's a scam," says Gobel.

The FTC warns never to give out personal information to any unsolicited phone caller from a company asking for your social security number, your driver's license number or your credit card number. And don't click on links in unsolicited emails, even if it has an official-looking seal, logo or other government agency representation. These lead you to think the caller is affiliated with the government's reputable student loan programs, but he is not. The ED does not send advertisements or mailers or sales emails or make phone calls to solicit consumers. If you receive a student loan debt consolidation solicitation, it is not from the ED. The ED never promises sweepstakes winnings, gift cards or any other types of incentives, which the FTC says are offered by scammers to get you to overlook the offered loan terms. You can also identify the official government websites by the "" on the end of the web address.

Are you being pressured?

If there is a high pressure sales pitch about urgent dates or interest rates expiring, the FTC warns that it may be a scam. If all of your education loans have fixed interest rates, there may be no deadline to consolidate. The ED publishes new variable rates for some federal loans each July 1st so that is the only true date to consider for Federal student loan consolidations. The annual rate changes can raise or lower the interest rate offered on a consolidated loan because the consolidation interest rate will be the weighted average of all loans consolidated, but you will still get the best interest rate for federal student loan consolidation through the ED.

Gobel advises visiting the official ED National Student Loan Data System website where you can see your outstanding federal loan details such as the amounts, interest rate type and amount and important dates.

Is the lender promising discounts?

The FTC warns that scammy lenders often promise discounts but impose restrictions you may only find in the very fine print on the actual loan documents. In that fine print, you may learn the lower interest rate offered depends on opting for automated payments or a discounted interested rate is only for a specified minimum loan balance. Still others offer interest rate discounts for on-time payments, but one late payment jacks the rate up for the life of the loan. If the outside company sells your loan, any bona-fide discounts or benefits you thought you had may not transfer, so be sure to ask whether the company sells its loans and whether benefits and discounts will transfer. The FTC urges you to take your time to be sure you meet any discount requirements before signing with an outside company making promises.

Gobel says she can't stress it enough."Do not even consider these outside student loan debt consolidation companies before learning about your loans and free Federal Direct Consolidation Loans via the official ED website. For any private loans, try to work with your original lender first."

Gobel says sticking with the Federal government programs and the lender you already work with is your best bet for the least expensive, reputable student loan debt consolidation.

—Written by Nancy Mannino for MainStreet