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Financial Services Law Insights and Observations

CFPB proposes rule making certain NSF fees “abusive”

Agency Rule-Making & Guidance CFPB CFPA NSF Fees Federal Issues Bank Supervision

Agency Rule-Making & Guidance

On January 24, the CFPB released a proposed rule that would identify the charging of non-sufficient funds (NSF) fees on transactions that financial institutions decline instantaneously or near-instantaneously as an “abusive” act or practice. The rule would prohibit financial institutions from charging such fees. The proposed rule defines a “covered transaction” as a consumer’s attempt to withdraw, debit, pay, or transfer funds from their account that is declined instantaneously or near-instantaneously by a “covered financial institution” due to insufficient funds. Further, instantaneously, or near-instantaneously-declined transactions are characterized as transactions that are processed in real-time with “no significant perceptible delay to the consumer when attempting the transaction.” One-time debit card transactions that are not preauthorized, ATM transactions, and certain person-to-person transactions would be covered by the proposed rule. The proposed rule would not cover (i) transactions declined or rejected due to insufficient funds hours or days after a consumer’s attempt; (ii) checks and ACH transactions (given that they are not able to be instantaneously declined); (iii) transactions authorized at first, even if they are later rejected or fail to settle due to insufficient funds. The proposed rule defines “covered financial institution” in line with Regulation E’s definition of “financial institution.”

Although the CFPB noted that currently financial institutions do not typically charge NSF fees on the proposed covered transactions and acknowledged that it was proposing the “rule primarily as a preventive measure,” it expressed concern that financial institutions who do not currently charge NSF fees for “covered transactions” may have an incentive to do so as other regulatory interventions reduce other sources of fee income. Further, the CFPB considered whether its concerns could be addressed through certain disclosures, but declined to pursue that course of action, citing challenges in implementation across diverse payment channels and interfaces. Even if feasible, the CFPB added, such disclosures might be costly and may not fully prevent abusive practices.

Moreover, the proposed rule clarifies the CFPB’s current interpretation of the prohibition on abusive acts or practices and distinguish prior views set forth in the preamble of a separate rule—the CFPB’s 2020 rule rescinding certain provisions of the 2017 Rule on Payday, Vehicle Title, and Certain High-Cost Installment Loans’ (2020 Rescission Rule). Abusive practices are defined to include, among other things, acts or practices that take “unreasonable advantage” of a consumer’s “lack of understanding . . . of the material risks, costs, or conditions” of a consumer product or service. The CFPB proposes to “clarify” its prior interpretation of this prohibition, by articulating its view that a “lack of understanding” need not be “reasonable” to form the predicate of an abusive act or practice.  In the CFPB’s view, this distinguishes the abusiveness prohibition from the longstanding prohibition on “unfair” practices, which requires showing that consumers could not “reasonably avoid” consumer injury by, for example, reading disclosures or understanding that a particular transaction would overdraw the balance in their account and result in fees.  The Bureau’s current view is that the 2020 Rescission Rule conflated “reasonable avoidability” and “lack of understanding,” contrary to the text and purpose of the abusive conduct prohibition. In addition, the CFPB proposes clarifying that, notwithstanding the 2020 Rescission Rule’s emphasis on the “magnitude” and “likelihood” of harm, the “materiality” requirement pertains to understanding “risks,” not necessarily “costs” or “conditions.” The CFPB explained that a consumer’s lack of understanding of costs does not always align with the analysis of harm likelihood and magnitude, for example, it suffices to demonstrate that a company exploits consumer ignorance about a fee (“cost”) in a specific situation, even if consumers generally understand the “risk” of fees. The CFPB has preliminarily determined that consumers charged NSF fees on covered transactions would “lack understanding of the material risks, costs, or conditions of their account at the time they are initiating covered transactions.”

In the CFPB’s view, financial institutions are taking “unreasonable advantage” of consumers when they impose NSF fees on covered transactions because the financial institution: (i) profits from a transaction but provides no service in return; (ii) chooses to impose NSF fees when instantaneously declining a transaction at no cost or negligible cost is an option; (iii) benefits from negative consumer outcomes caused by their lack of understanding; and (iv) profits from economically “vulnerable” consumers’ lack of understanding or hardship, instead of providing services to alleviate it.

Among other things, the CFPB seeks comments on the proposed parameters of covered transactions, whether the practices identified in the proposed rule are broad enough to address the “potential consumer harms,” and submission of data on covered financial institutions’ cost to decline covered transactions. Comments must be received by March 25. Finally, the CFPB is proposing an effective date of 30 days after publication of the final rule in the Federal Register.