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Financial Services Law Insights and Observations

FTC charges small-business financing operation with deceptive and unfair practices

Federal Issues FTC Enforcement Small Business Financing Merchant Cash Advance FTC Act UDAP

Federal Issues

On June 10, the FTC filed a complaint against two New York-based small-business financing companies and a related entity and individuals (collectively, “defendants”) for allegedly engaging in deceptive practices by misrepresenting the terms of their merchant cash advances (MCAs), using unfair collection practices, and making unauthorized withdrawals from consumers’ accounts. The FTC’s complaint alleges that the defendants purported “to provide immediate funds in a specific amount in exchange for consumers’ agreement to repay a higher amount from future business revenues” to be “remitted over time through daily debits from consumers’ bank accounts.” However, the defendants allegedly, among other things, (i) made false claims on their websites that their MCAs require “no personal guaranty of collateral from business owners,” when in fact, the contracts included such provisions; (ii) withheld various upfront fees ranging from hundreds to tens of thousands of dollars prior to disbursing funds to consumers (according to the complaint, these fees were either poorly disclosed in the contracts or not disclosed at all); (iii) directed agents to charge higher fees to consumers than permitted by the contracts; (iv) required businesses and their owners to sign confessions of judgment (COJs) as part of their contracts, and unlawfully and unfairly used the COJs to seize consumers’ personal and business assets, including in circumstances where consumers could not make payments due to technical issues outside their control, or in instances not permitted by the defendants’ financing contracts; (v) made threatening calls to borrowers, including threats of physical violence or reputational harm, to compel consumers to make payments; and (vi) made unauthorized withdrawals from consumers’ accounts. The FTC seeks a permanent injunction against the defendants, along with monetary relief including “rescission or reformation of contracts, restitution, the refund of monies paid, disgorgement of ill-gotten monies, and other equitable relief.”

The same day, the FTC published a blog post highlighting the Commission’s ongoing efforts to combat questionable financing practices targeting small businesses. The FTC also held a forum in 2019 on marketplace lending to small businesses, which analyzed the potential for unfair and deceptive marketing, sales, and collection practices in the industry, and released a follow-up staff perspective paper earlier this year (see InfoBytes coverage here and here). In addition, over the past few years, several states have introduced legislation and advisories on MCAs and small business financing (see prior InfoBytes coverage here).