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On March 7, the FTC announced a new legal action and a final settlement issued against individuals and their operations for allegedly engaging in schemes that exploit elderly Americans. The actions are part of an enforcement sweep spearheaded by the DOJ in conjunction with, among others, the FBI, the FTC, Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations, and the Louisiana Attorney General, which—according to a press release issued the same day by the DOJ—is the largest-ever coordinated nationwide elder fraud sweep, involving multiple cases, over 260 defendants, and more than two million allegedly victimized U.S. Citizens, most of whom are elderly.
According to the FTC’s complaint, the company used deceptive tactics to convince consumers, the majority of whom were older, that their computers were infected with viruses in order to sell expensive and unnecessary computer repair services in violation of the FTC Act, the Telemarketing Sales Rule, and the Restore Online Shoppers’ Confidence Act. Specifically, the company allegedly used internet ads to target consumers looking for email password assistance and once they contacted the consumers, the telemarketers would run phony “diagnostic” tests that falsely showed the consumer’s computer was in danger and needed software and services to be fixed. On February 27, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Utah, granted a temporary restraining order against the company and its founder.
The FTC also announced a proposed settlement with a sweepstake operation that allegedly bilked consumers out of tens of millions of dollars through personalized mailers that falsely implied that the recipients had won or were likely to win a cash prize if they paid a fee. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the FTC announced the charges against the company in February 2018, alleging that consumers, most of whom were elderly, paid more than $110 million towards the scheme. The final settlement not only requires the operation to turn over $30 million in assets and cash to provide redress to the victims, but also permanently bans the operators from similar prize promotions in the future. The proposed settlement has not yet been approved by the court.
On February 26, the FTC announced it had recently provided the CFPB with its annual summary of work on ECOA-related policy issues including the following FTC research and policy development initiatives:
- The FTC held a series of public hearings on competition and consumer protection in the 21st century. Session seven specifically addressed issues related to the use of algorithms, artificial intelligence, and predictive analytics. Panelists addressed how fairness, bias, and discrimination may impact the use of such technologies and debated whether current legal protections such as ECOA sufficiently cover these issues.
- The FTC continued its qualitative study of consumer experiences when buying and selling automobiles at dealerships, which the agency believes will help focus initiatives, such as educating consumers about the purchase and financing process and providing business education to promote compliance with the FTC Act and ECOA.
- The FTC’s Military Task Force, which consists of a cross-section of agency representatives, continued to work on military consumer protection issues. Workshops were conducted to examine financial issues and scams targeting military consumers, including servicemembers and veterans. In addition, the FTC participated in a training program for servicemembers and their families to discuss ECOA and Regulation B protections.
- The FTC maintained its membership in the Interagency Task Force on Fair Lending, along with the CFPB, DOJ, HUD, and the federal banking regulatory agencies, and participated in the Financial Fraud Enforcement Task Force.
Concerning fair lending, the FTC stated that it provided education on several topics, including those related to credit transactions that fall under Regulation B.
On February 28, the FTC announced it filed a complaint in the U.S. District Court for the District of Puerto Rico alleging a business owner and the companies he operates (defendants) violated the FTC Act and the Restore Online Shoppers’ Confidence Act (ROSCA) by allegedly offering deceptive online “free-trial” offers that mislead consumers into enrolling into negative option plans. According to the complaint, the defendants sold skin care products online between February 2016 and August 2017 and marketed a free trial for the products for the cost of around $4.99 in shipping. The complaint alleges consumers who ordered the free trial (i) were charged more than $90 and then subsequently enrolled into a monthly auto-ship program; (ii) were charged for additional products without their consent; and (iii) had a difficult time canceling their enrollment in the auto-ship plan. Moreover, the FTC argues that the defendants avoided detection by using shell companies to obtain merchant processing accounts and fake and real websites in order to avoid detection by credit card companies and law enforcement. The FTC is seeking monetary and injunctive relief against the defendants.
On February 26, the FTC announced its first action against a company for using fake paid reviews on an independent retail website in violation of the FTC Act. According to the complaint, the company—which advertised and sold a pill on a retail website as an appetite suppressant, fat blocker, and weight loss supplement—paid a website to create and post reviews of its supplement on the retail website in order to keep the supplement’s rating high. The FTC argues that paying for the fake reviews constitutes a deceptive act or practice and the making of false advertisements in violation of the FTC Act because the company represented the reviews as truthful comments by actual product purchasers. Moreover, the FTC alleges that the company made deceptive or false claims about the effectiveness of its supplement on the retail website because the claims were unsubstantiated at the time the representations were made. The proposed order imposes injunctive relief prohibiting the company from making similar claims related to similar dietary supplements unless there is reliable evidence from human clinical testing to support the claims, and from misrepresenting that an endorsement is truthful or from an actual purchaser. As part of the settlement, the company has agreed to a 12.8 million suspended judgment after the payment of $50,000 based on the company’s financial condition. The proposed order has not yet been approved by the district court.
On February 25, the FTC announced it has approved a final consent order with an online student loan refinance lender resolving allegations that the lender violated the FTC Act by misrepresenting in television, print, and internet advertisements how much money student loan borrowers can save from refinancing their loans with the company. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the FTC alleged that the lender inflated the average savings consumers have achieved by refinancing through the lender, in some instances doubling the average savings by selectively excluding certain groups of consumers from the data. Additionally, the FTC also alleged that in some instances, the lender’s webpage misrepresented instances where a loan option would result in the consumer paying more on a monthly basis or over the lifetime of the loan, simply stating the savings would be “0.00.” In October 2018, without admitting or denying the allegations, the lender agreed to a consent order that required it to cease the alleged misrepresentations and agree to compliance monitoring and recordkeeping requirements. Following a public comment period, the FTC Commission voted 5-0 to approve the final consent order.
On February 21, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit issued a summary order reversing the lower court’s dismissal of an FTC and New York State action, which alleges a biotechnology group’s (defendants) marketing campaign for a dietary supplement was deceptive under the FTC Act. According to the opinion, defendants claimed in advertising and marketing materials that a suite of dietary supplements (i) improve memory and provide other cognitive benefits; (ii) the effects are clinically proven; and (iii) have an active ingredient that “supplements” brain proteins. The FTC and New York State brought an action alleging deceptive marketing in violation of the FTC Act because the defendants study of the supplements showed “no statistically significant improvement in the memory and cognition of the participants,” and the few positive findings did not “provide reliable evidence of a treatment effect.” The lower court dismissed the action, finding the challenge to the study “never proceed[ed] beyond the theoretical” as the complaint only showed there were “possibilities that the study’s results do not support its conclusion.”
On appeal, the 2nd Circuit found the complaint adequately alleges that the results of the study contradict representations made in the marketing materials, such as, the supplement “improved memory for most subjects within 90 days,” and concluded the lower court erred in dismissing the action.
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.
- 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
- Tim Lange to discuss "Update from 2019 NMLS Conference" at the California Mortgage Bankers Association Mortgage Quality & Compliance Committee webinar
- 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
- Jon David D. Langlois to discuss "Transaction management-issues surrounding purchase & sale agreements, post acquisition integration & trailing docs" at the Investment Management Network Residential Mortgage Servicing Rights Forum
- 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 "Creative character evidence in criminal and civil trials" at the Litigation Counsel of America Spring Conference & Celebration of Fellows
- Brandy A. Hood to discuss "Flood NFIP in the age of extreme weather events" at the Mortgage Bankers Association Legal Issues and Regulatory Compliance Conference
- Michelle L. Rogers to discuss "UDAAP compliance" at the Mortgage Bankers Association Legal Issues and Regulatory Compliance Conference
- Kathryn L. Ryan to discuss "State examination/enforcement trends" at the Mortgage Bankers Association Legal Issues and Regulatory Compliance Conference
- Benjamin K. Olson to discuss "LO compensation" at the Mortgage Bankers Association Legal Issues and Regulatory Compliance Conference
- Kathryn L. Ryan to discuss "Major state law developments" at the Mortgage Bankers Association Legal Issues and Regulatory Compliance Conference
- Jonice Gray Tucker to discuss "Leveraging big data responsibly" at the Mortgage Bankers Association Legal Issues and Regulatory Compliance Conference
- 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