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Financial Services Law Insights and Observations

District Court orders individual to pay $148 million in student debt-relief scam

Courts Federal Issues State Issues CFPB Consumer Finance Enforcement Student Lending Debt Relief State Attorney General CFPA TSR FDCPA Debt Collection Settlement

Courts

On July 7, the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California entered a final judgment and order against an individual defendant accused of operating and controlling a deceptive student loan debt relief operation. As previously covered by InfoBytes, in 2019, the CFPB, along with the Minnesota and North Carolina attorneys general and the Los Angeles City Attorney (together, the “states”), announced an action against the student loan debt relief operation for allegedly deceiving thousands of student loan borrowers. The Bureau and the states alleged that since at least 2015, the debt relief operation violated the Consumer Financial Protection Act (CFPA), Telemarketing Sales Rule (TSR), FDCPA, and various state laws by charging and collecting over $95 million in illegal advance fees from student loan borrowers. In addition, the Bureau and the states claimed that the debt relief operation engaged in deceptive practices by misrepresenting the purpose and application of the fees they charged and the nature and benefits of their services. Specifically, the debt relief operation allegedly failed to inform borrowers that, among other things, (i) they would request that the loans be placed in forbearance and interest would continue to accrue during the forbearance period, thereby increasing the borrowers’ overall loan balances; and (ii) it was their practice to submit false information about the borrowers to student loan servicers to try to qualify borrowers for lower monthly payments. The individual defendant was accused of owning, controlling, and managing the student loan debt relief operation, materially participating in the operation’s affairs, and providing substantial assistance or support while knowing or consciously avoiding knowledge that the operation was engaging in illegal conduct.

The individual defendant was held liable, jointly and severally, in the amount of approximately $95,057,757, for the purpose of providing redress to affected borrowers. Because the individual defendant was found to have recklessly violated the TSR and the CFPA, the court also imposed second-tier civil monetary penalties of $147,985,000 to the Bureau, of which $5,000 will be paid to each state. The final judgment also imposes various forms of injunctive relief, including permanent bans on engaging in consumer financial products or services and violating the TSR, CFPA, and similar laws in Minnesota, North Carolina, and California. The individual defendant is also prohibited from disclosing, using, or benefiting from customer information obtained in connection with the offering or providing of the debt relief services, and may not “attempt to collect, sell, assign, or otherwise transfer any right to collect payment from any consumer who purchased or agreed to purchase” a debt relief service from any of the defendants.