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On March 27, the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California entered a consent judgment ending a CFPB lawsuit against a group of affiliated law firms and their managing attorneys. As previously covered by InfoBytes in 2017, the Bureau’s enforcement action alleged that the defendants violated the Telemarketing Sales Rule by, among other things, (i) collecting improper fees in advance of providing debt relief services; (ii) misrepresenting that advance fees would not be charged; and (iii) providing substantial assistance to another company it knew or should have known was engaged in acts or practices that violated the rule. Under the terms of the consent judgment, the defendants—who have neither admitted nor denied the Bureau’s allegations or the factual findings outlined in the judgment—agreed to pay approximately $35.3 million in redress to affected consumers and a $40 million civil money penalty. However, based on the defendants’ inability to pay this amount, full payment is suspended subject to the defendants’ paying $50,000 to affected consumers and $1.00 toward the CMP.
On March 26, the FTC announced settlements issued against four separate operations for allegedly placing billions of illegal robocalls to consumers selling auto warranties, debt-relief services, home security systems, veterans’ charities and Google search results services. The actions are part of the FTC’s ongoing efforts to combat illegal robocalls. According to the FTC, the companies—along with several of their affiliates and leaders—allegedly violated the FTC Act and the Telemarketing Sales Rule (TSR), including its Do Not Call provisions.
Proposed settlements issued against two related operations and their leaders—who, according to the FTC’s complaint, developed and enabled a software dialing platform that resulted in more than one billion robocalls—ban the defendants from engaging in telemarketing activities utilizing an autodialer, and imposes judgements ranging from $1 million to $2.7 million, of which two are fully suspended due to the defendants’ inability to pay. The FTC also reached a final settlement against defendants who allegedly placed robocalls to pitch fake debt-relief services promising lowered credit card interest rates and interest payment savings. The order permanently bans the defendants from engaging in telemarketing and debt-relief services, and imposes a $3.15 million judgment, which will be suspended following the turnover of available assets. Separately, the FTC reached a proposed settlement with a defendant who allegedly used robocalls promoting fake veterans’ charities to solicit donations, which he eventually sold for his own benefit. The proposed order bans the defendant from engaging in telemarketing services or soliciting charitable contributions, prohibits him from making future misrepresentations, and imposes a $541,032 monetary judgment, which will also be suspended following the turnover of available assets. Finally, the FTC announced proposed settlements against three defendants (see here, here, and here) whose Florida-based operations allegedly violated the TSR by falsely claiming to represent Google and making threats and promises to businesses concerning search results and page placements. The terms of the proposed settlements, among other things, ban the defendants from deceptive sales practices, and require the defendants to disclose their identities during telemarketing sales calls. Monetary judgements imposed against the defendants and their companies range from $1.72 million to $3.62 million, and will be partially suspended due to their inability to pay.
On January 3, an Illinois-based for-profit education company settled with 49 state attorneys general, agreeing to forgo collection of nearly $494 million in debts owed by almost 180,000 students nationally. According to the Illinois Attorney General’s announcement, after a seven-year investigation into the company’s practices, the participating states allege that, among other things, the company (i) deceived students about the total costs of enrollment; (ii) failed to adequately disclose that certain programs lacked programmatic accreditation, which would negatively affect a student’s ability to get a license or employment in that field; and (iii) misled prospective students about post-graduate job rates. Under the settlement, the company has agreed to forgo collection of debts owed by students who either attended a company institution that closed before Jan. 1, 2019, or whose final day of attendance at two participating online institutions occurred on or before Dec. 31, 2013. In addition to the debt relief, the settlement also requires the company to, among other things, reform its recruiting and enrollment practices, including providing students with a single page disclosure that covers the (i) anticipated total direct cost; (ii) median debt for completers; (iii) programmatic cohort default rate; (iv) program completion rate; (v) notice concerning transferability of credits; (vi) median earnings for completers; and (vii) the job placement rate.
Department of Education forgives roughly $150 million in student loans eligible for automatic closed school discharge
On December 13, the Department of Education announced it will automatically discharge approximately $150 million in student loans for roughly 15,000 eligible borrowers as part of implementing the Department’s Final Regulations (81 FR 75926) (also known as the “Borrower Defense Regulations” or “regulations”), which took effect in October following a decision by the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia that the Department’s move to delay the regulations—finalized in 2016 and originally set to take effect July 1, 2017—was procedurally invalid (see InfoBytes coverage on the ruling here.) The Borrower Defense Regulations are designed to protect student borrowers against misleading and predatory practices by postsecondary institutions and clarify a process for loan forgiveness in cases of institutional misconduct. Of the $150 million, approximately $80 million of the amount is attributable to loans taken out by students who attended now bankrupt, for-profit Corinthian schools. (See InfoBytes coverage on matters related to Corinthian schools here.) The announcement also provides information for loan holders, guaranty agencies in the Federal Family Education Loan program, and schools concerning new closed school discharge requirements.
Court grants summary judgment in favor of FTC and Florida State Attorney General in debt relief scam case
On December 10, the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida granted the FTC and the Florida Attorney General’s motion for summary judgment against an individual accused of participating in a scheme that allegedly targeted financially distressed consumers through illegal robocalls selling bogus credit card debt relief services and interest rate reductions. According to a 2016 complaint, several interrelated companies and the founder of such companies (defendants), among other things, allegedly violated the FTC Act, the Telemarketing Sales Rule, and the Florida Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act by (i) claiming to be “licensed enrollment center[s]” for major credit card networks with the ability to work with a consumer’s credit card company or bank to substantially and permanently lower credit card interest rates; (ii) charging up-front payments for debt relief and rate-reduction services; and (iii) pitching credit card debt-elimination services, claiming the defendants could access money from a government fund to pay off consumers’ credit card debt in 18 months, when in actuality, no such government fund existed. In some cases, the defendants instructed consumers to stop paying their credit-card bills, resulting in “significant harm in the form of reduced creditworthiness, higher interest rates on their existing credit-card debt, and higher overall credit-card debt due to the accrual of late fees and interest charges.”
The court entered a permanent injunction ordering the defendant founder of the companies involved to pay over $23 million in equitable monetary relief. The order also permanently restrains and enjoins such defendant from, among other things, participating—whether directly or indirectly—in (i) telemarketing; (ii) advertising, marketing, selling, or promoting any debt relief products or services; or (iii) misrepresenting material facts.
On December 7, as part of Operation Game of Loans—a coordinated effort between the FTC and state law enforcement—the FTC announced settlements with operators of two student loan debt relief operations to resolve allegations that the defendants violated the FTC Act and the Telemarketing Sales Rule by, among others (i) charging consumers who purchased the debt relief services illegal upfront fees; and (ii) falsely promising to assist consumers in enrolling in government programs that would reduce or forgive their student loan debt.
Under the terms of the settlement, the defendants are permanently banned from advertising, marketing, promoting, offering for sale, or selling any type of debt relief product or service—or from assisting others in doing the same. Combined, the settlements total more than $36 million, though judgments have been partially suspended due to the defendants’ inability to pay.
FTC settles with one student loan debt relief operation; seeks separate permanent injunction against another
On November 20, the FTC announced a settlement with operators of a student loan debt relief operation to resolve allegations that the defendants defrauded consumers through programs offering mortgage assistance and student debt relief. Regarding the student debt operations, the FTC alleged that the defendants falsely offered student borrowers reduced monthly payments or loan forgiveness by falsely claiming to be affiliated with the Department of Education. In a 2017 complaint, the FTC alleged that the defendants also falsely promised foreclosure prevention and mortgage relief to distressed homeowners, but instead collected advance fees in violation of the Telemarketing Sales Rule (TSR) and the Mortgage Assistance Relief Services Rule. Among other things, the settlement includes a judgment of more than $9 million—which will be partially suspended once the defendants turn over all assets worth approximately $305,000 because of their inability to pay—and bans the defendants from participating in debt relief and telemarketing activities in the future.
The same day, the FTC also announced it was charging a separate student loan debt relief operation with violations of the FTC Act and the TSR for allegedly engaging in deceptive practices when marketing and selling their debt relief services. According to the complaint, the operators of the scheme—which include a recidivist scammer previously banned from participating in debt relief activities—allegedly “promoted a 96 percent success rate in reducing consumers’ student loan payments.” However, the FTC stated that consumers who purchased the debt relief services and often paid illegal upfront fees “often did not receive any debt relief and lost hundreds of dollars.” On November 13, the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California issued a temporary restraining order and asset freeze at the FTC’s request. The FTC seeks a permanent injunction against the defendants to prevent future violations, as well as redress for injured consumers through “rescission or reformation of contracts, restitution, the refund of monies paid, and the disgorgement of ill-gotten monies.”
Pension advance company settles with Virginia Attorney General over high-interest loans targeting veterans and retirees
On November 15, the Virginia Attorney General announced a $51.7 million settlement with a pension advance company, its owner, and related entities (defendants) to resolve allegations concerning allegedly illegal, high-interest loans made to more than 1,000 Virginia veterans and retirees in violation of the Virginia Consumer Protection Act (VCPA). According to the Attorney General’s complaint, the defendants allegedly “disguised [the] illegal, high interest loans as ‘pension sales’ that could provide Virginia pension holders with a quick lump sum of cash,” and seemingly concentrated the sales in two Virginia areas where a large number of retired veterans and civil servants reside. Following the lawsuit, the defendants shut down lending operations in Virginia and around the country. Under a permanent injunction and final judgment, the court—which declared the defendants’ agreements to be “usurious and illegal”—ordered the defendants to: (i) provide over $20 million in borrower debt forgiveness; (ii) pay a $31.7 million civil money penalty; (iii) pay $414,473 in restitution; (iv) pay $198,000 for costs and attorneys’ fees; and (v) agree to injunctive relief to prevent further violations of the VCPA.
On September 28, as part of Operation Game of Loans, a coordinated effort between the FTC and state law enforcement, the FTC announced settlements with several individuals and their associated companies (defendants), accused of violating the FTC Act and the Telemarketing Sales Rule when marketing and selling student debt relief services. According to the FTC, the defendants, among other claims: allegedly (i) misrepresented to consumers that they were affiliated with the Department of Education or a borrower’s loan servicer; (ii) claimed that consumers who paid an up-front fee—as much as $1,000 according to the FTC’s complaint—would qualify for or be approved to receive permanently reduced monthly payments or have their student loans forgiven or discharged; and (iii) engaged in deceptive advertising practices through social media, falsely claiming they could qualify, establish eligibility for, approve, or enroll consumers in loan forgiveness programs.
Under the terms of the settlements, the defendants are permanently banned from advertising, marketing, promoting, offering for sale, or selling any type of debt relief products or services—or from assisting others to do the same. The defendants also are prohibited from making misrepresentations related to financial products and services. Combined, the settlements total more than $19 million in monetary judgments, all of which have been partially suspended due to the defendants’ inability to pay the entire amount of their respective judgments. The more than $5 million in unsuspended amounts may be used for equitable relief, including consumer redress.
On September 20, the New York Attorney General announced a lawsuit against nine student loan debt relief companies, along with their financing company, and two individuals (collectively, “defendants”), alleging that the defendants fraudulently, deceptively, and illegally marketed, sold, and financed student debt relief services to consumers nationwide. Among other things, the complaint alleges that the defendants (i) sent direct mail solicitations to consumers that deceptively appeared to be from a governmental agency or an entity affiliated with a government agency; (ii) misrepresented that they would apply fees paid by borrowers to student loan balances; (iii) charged consumers over $1,000 for services that were available for free; (iv) requested upfront payments in violation of federal and state credit repair and debt relief laws; (v) charged usurious interest rates; and (vi) provided consumers with “incomplete and harmful advice,” such as counseling borrowers to consolidate federal student loans without explaining that in certain circumstances borrowers could “lose months or years of loan payments they had already made that would qualify toward forgiveness of their loans under the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program.” The New York Attorney General maintains that these practices violated several federal and state consumer protection statutes, including the Telemarketing Sales Rule, New York General Business Law, the state’s usury cap on interest rates as covered by New York Banking Law and New York General Obligations Law, disclosure requirements under the Truth in Lending Act, and the Federal Credit Repair Organization Act.
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