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On February 8, the FTC announced that the U.S. District Court for the Western District of North Carolina had issued a temporary restraining order and asset freeze regarding a debt collection operation allegedly collecting phantom debts. According to the FTC, the debt collection operation deceptively claimed to be attorneys, or to be affiliated with attorneys, to pressure consumers into paying debts which they did not owe, including threatening legal action if they did not pay, in violation of the FTC Act and the FDCPA. The order names 10 companies and six individuals as defendants and temporarily prohibits the defendants from, among other things, (i) misrepresenting information as it relates to collection efforts; (ii) threatening to take unlawful action; (iii) communicating with third parties without having obtained prior consent, other than to determine a consumer’s location; and (iv) failing to provide consumers with written debt information five days after initial contact.
On December 19, the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York announced it filed charges against a Kansas-based broker-dealer for allegedly willfully failing to file a suspicious activity report (SAR) in connection with the illegal activities of one of its customers in violation of the Bank Secrecy Act (BSA). According to the announcement, this is the first criminal BSA action ever brought against a U.S. broker-dealer. The allegations are connected to the actions of the broker-dealer’s customer, who was the owner of a Kansas-based payday lending scheme that was ordered to pay a $1.3 billion judgment for making false and misleading representations about loan costs and payments in violation of the FTC Act (previously covered by InfoBytes here). The U.S. Attorney alleges the broker-dealer, among other things, failed to follow its customer identification procedures, disregarded “red flags that were known prior to [the customer] opening the accounts,” and continued to ignore additional red flags that arose over time. Additionally, the U.S. Attorney alleges the broker-dealer failed to monitor transactions using its anti-money laundering (AML) tool, which led to numerous suspicious transactions going undetected and unreported until long after the customer was convicted at trial for his actions in the scheme.
Along with the announcement of the filing, the U.S. Attorney’s Office further stated it had entered into a deferred prosecution agreement with the broker-dealer in which it agreed to accept responsibility for its conduct, pay a $400,000 penalty, and enhance its BSA/AML compliance program.
The SEC also settled with the broker-dealer for the failure to file the SARs. The settlement requires the broker-dealer to hire an independent consultant to review its AML and customer identification program and implement any recommended changes. The independent consultant will monitor for compliance with the recommendations for two years.
On December 14, the FTC announced an updated Memorandum of Agreement with the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to continue efforts to stop fraudulent and deceptive practices which target servicemembers, veterans, and their dependents who use military education benefits. The agreement is required by 38 U.S.C. § 3696(c) and enables the FTC to utilize, at its discretion, the resources available to investigate deceptive or unfair advertising, sales, or enrollment practices in violation of Section 5 of the FTC Act. The agreement outlines the process for the VA to refer matters to the FTC for investigation and notes that the content of the information in the referral shall remain confidential. Additionally, the agreement requires the FTC, upon request, to provide the VA with a summary of the preliminary findings at the conclusion of the investigation. The VA or the FTC may respond to the preliminary findings by taking appropriate actions, including announcing the findings publicly.
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 11, the FTC entered into a proposed settlement with an Arizona-based company and its officer (defendants) relating to an allegedly deceptive credit card telemarketing operation. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the FTC alleged that the defendants—as part of a larger group of 12 defendants comprised of an independent sales organization, sales agents, payment processors, and identified principals—violated the FTC Act and the Telemarketing Sales Rule by assisting a telemarketing company in masking its identity by processing the company’s credit card payments and laundering credit card transactions on behalf of multiple fictitious companies. The proposed settlement, among other things, prohibits the defendants from engaging in credit card laundering and bans them from telemarketing, processing payments, or acting as an independent sales organization or sales agent. The order also stipulates a judgment of $5.7 million, which will be suspended unless it is determined that the financial statements submitted by the defendants contain any inaccuracies.
In March 2018, the FTC reached settlements with two of the other defendants (see InfoBytes coverage here). Litigation continues against the remaining defendants.
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.
On December 3, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit upheld a $1.3 billion judgment against defendants-appellants responsible for operating an allegedly deceptive payday lending scheme. As previously covered by InfoBytes, in October 2016, the FTC announced that the U.S. District Court for the District of Nevada ordered a Kansas-based operation and its owner to pay nearly $1.3 billion for allegedly violating Section 5(a) of the FTC Act by making false and misleading representations about loan costs and payment. The owner appealed to the 9th Circuit, arguing that the loan notes were “technically correct” because the fine print located under the TILA disclosure box contained all the legally required information. The appeals court disagreed. In affirming the district court’s judgment, the appeals court determined the loan note was still deceptive even though the fine print contained the relevant information about the loan’s automatic renewal terms, stating “[appellants’] argument wrongly assumes that non-deceptive business practices can somehow cure the deceptive nature of the Loan Note.” Moreover, the appeals court rejected the argument about technical correctness, citing the FTC Act’s “consumer-friendly standard” (which does not require technical accuracy) and noting that “consumers acting reasonably under the circumstances—here, by looking to the terms of the Loan Note to understand their obligations—likely could be deceived by the representations made there.” Among other things, the appeals court also rejected the appellant owner’s challenge to the $1.3 billion judgment (based on an argument that the lower court overestimated his “wrongful gain” and that the FTC Act only allows the court to issue injunctions), concluding that the owner failed to provide evidence contradicting the wrongful gain calculation and that a district court may grant any ancillary relief under the FTC Act, including restitution.
On November 13, the FTC submitted comments in response to the Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) request for input on developing the Administration’s approach to consumer data privacy protections. In its comment letter, the FTC noted that it supported a balanced approach to privacy, weighing the risks of data misuse with the benefits of data to innovation and competition, and reiterated its support for data privacy legislation. Specifically, the FTC renewed its call for Congressional action that clarifies the FTC’s authority and the rules relating to data security and breach notification. According to the FTC, any such legislation should balance “consumers’ legitimate concerns about the protections afforded to the collection, use, and sharing of their data with business’ need for clear rules of the road, consumers’ demand for data-driven products and services, and the importance of flexible frameworks that foster innovation.”
The FTC emphasized it is “uniquely situated” to balance consumers’ interest in privacy, innovation, and competition and argued it should continue to be the primary enforcer of the laws related to “information flows in the marketplace,” whether it’s under the existing or new privacy framework. The FTC noted, however, that the existing framework places a number of limitations on its powers, including (i) its lack of authority over non-profits and common carriers; (ii) its inability to levy civil money penalties; and (iii) its lack of broad rulemaking authority under the APA for consumer protection issues such as privacy and data security.
On November 8, the FTC announced that the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland has granted a temporary restraining order against the operators of an international real estate investment development, which the FTC claims is the “largest overseas real estate investment scam [it] has ever targeted.” According to the FTC’s complaint, the defendants violated the FTC Act and the Telemarketing Sales Rule by advertising and selling parcels of land that were part of a luxury development in Belize through the use of deceptive tactics and claims. The FTC contends that consumers who purchased lots in the development purchased the lots outright or made large down payments and sizeable monthly payments, and paid monthly homeowners association fees, and that defendants used the money received from these payments to fund their “high-end lifestyles,” rather than to invest in the development. In addition, the FTC asserts that, while the defendants falsely promised consumers that their lots would include luxury amenities, be completed soon, and result in property values that would “rapidly appreciate,” “consumers either have lost, or will lose, some or all of their investments.” The FTC’s press release also announces the filing of charges against a Belizean bank for allegedly assisting and facilitating the investment scam, as well as contempt motions against several of the individual defendants. The FTC is seeking information from affected consumers.
On November 1, the FTC announced a joint action with the New York Attorney General against a New York-based debt collection company for allegedly violating the FTC Act, the FDCPA, and New York state law by using false or deceptive tactics to collect money from consumers, sometimes resulting in the consumer paying more than what they allegedly owed. According to the complaint, the company’s employees threatened consumers with arrest or lawsuits while falsely posing as law enforcement officials or attorneys. Additionally, the employees allegedly added “more pressure” to consumers by telling them they owed more than the company’s records indicated they did, using forms to show a higher balance than the actual client balance—a practice known as “overbiffing.” On October 25, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of New York granted a temporary restraining order, halting the company’s allegedly illegal activity and freezing the company’s assets. The complaint seeks a (i) permanent injunction; (ii) consumer redress; and (iii) civil money penalties under New York law.
Interestingly, as covered by InfoBytes here, FTC Commissioner Rohit Chopra issued a concurring statement in another recent FTC action, suggesting the FTC should seek to partner with other enforcement agencies that have the authority to obtain monetary settlements from FTC targets. In this complaint, the New York Attorney General is seeking civil money penalties against the debt collectors under New York General Business Law § 350-d.
- Kathryn L. Ryan to discuss "NMLS usage" at the NMLS Annual Conference & Training
- Jeffrey S. Hydrick to discuss "State legislative update" at the NMLS Annual Conference & Training
- Kathryn L. Ryan to speak at the "Business model primer" at the NMLS Annual Conference & Training
- Daniel P. Stipano to discuss "Dynamic customer due diligence and beneficial ownership from KYC to ongoing CDD and the new rule implementation" at the Puerto Rican Symposium of Anti-Money Laundering
- Michelle L. Rogers to discuss "Preparing for servicing exams in the current regulatory environment" at the Mortgage Bankers Association National Mortgage Servicing Conference & Expo
- Jon David D. Langlois to discuss "Regulatory risks of convenience fees" at the Mortgage Bankers Association National Mortgage Servicing Conference & Expo
- APPROVED Webcast: NMLS Annual Conference & Ombudsman Meeting: Review and recap
- Brandy A. Hood to discuss "Keeping your head above water in flood insurance compliance" at the Mortgage Bankers Association National Mortgage Servicing Conference & Expo
- Melissa Klimkiewicz to discuss "Servicing super session" at the Mortgage Bankers Association National Mortgage Servicing Conference & Expo
- Daniel P. Stipano to discuss "Lessons learned from recent high profile enforcement actions" at the Florida International Bankers Association AML Compliance Conference
- Moorari K. Shah to provide "Regulatory update – California and beyond" at the National Equipment Finance Association Summit
- Sasha Leonhardt and John B. Williams to discuss "Privacy" at the National Association of Federally-Insured Credit Unions Spring Regulatory Compliance School
- Aaron C. Mahler to discuss "Regulation B/fair lending" at the National Association of Federally-Insured Credit Unions Spring Regulatory Compliance School
- Heidi M. Bauer to discuss "'So you want to form a joint venture' — Licensing strategies for successful JVs" at RESPRO26
- Jonice Gray Tucker to discuss "Small business & regulation: How fair lending has evolved & where are we heading?" at CBA Live
- Jonice Gray Tucker to to discuss "DC policy: Everything but the kitchen sink" at CBA Live
- Daniel P. Stipano to discuss "Lessons learned from ABLV and other major cases involving inadequate compliance oversight" at the ACAMS International AML & Financial Crime Conference
- Daniel P. Stipano to discuss "A year in the life of the CDD final rule: A first anniversary assessment" at the ACAMS International AML & Financial Crime Conference
- Moorari K. Shah to discuss "State regulatory and disclosures" at the Equipment Leasing and Finance Association Legal Forum
- Hank Asbill to discuss "Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain: Addressing prosecutions driven by hidden actors" at the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers West Coast White Collar Conference
- Daniel P. Stipano to discuss "Keep off the grass: Mitigating the risks of banking marijuana-related businesses" at the ACAMS AML Risk Management Conference
- Daniel P. Stipano to discuss "Mid-year policy update" at the ACAMS AML Risk Management Conference
- Benjamin W. Hutten to discuss "Requirements for banking inherently high-risk relationships" at the Georgia Bankers Association BSA Experience Program