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On December 12, the FCC adopted new rules to establish a single, comprehensive database designed to reduce the number of calls inadvertently made to reassigned numbers as part of its strategy to help stop unwanted calls. According to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, the database would enable callers to verify—prior to placing a call—whether a number has been permanently disconnected and is therefore eligible for reassignment. Currently, callers may be held liable under the TCPA should they call a reassigned number where the new party did not consent to receiving calls. The FCC also announced it will (i) add a safeguard requiring a “minimum ‘aging’ period of 45 days before permanently disconnected telephone numbers can be reassigned”; and (ii) provide a safe harbor from TCPA liability for any calls to reassigned numbers due to database error. However, FCC Commissioner Michael O’Reilly stated that while he supported the creation of the database, he expressed reservations about both the cost and effectiveness, stating “only the honest and legitimate callers will consult the reassigned numbers database—not the criminals and scammers.” O’Reilly suggested developing better, more logical interpretations of the TCPA, asserting that “much more work remains, particularly on narrowing the prior Commission’s ludicrous definition of ‘autodialer,’ and eliminating the lawless revocation of consent rule.”
Additionally, the FCC announced a ruling (see FCC 18-178) denying requests from mass-texting companies and other parties for text messages to be classified as ‘“telecommunications services’ subject to common carrier regulations under the Communication Act.” If the request had been granted, the FCC stated, the classification would have limited wireless providers’ efforts to effectively combat spam and scam robotexts. Rather, the FCC classified SMS and Multimedia Messaging Services as “information services” under the Communications Act, which allows wireless providers the ability to take action to stop unwanted text messages, such as applying filtering technologies to block messages that are likely spam.
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 6, the Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring announced he is joining a bipartisan group of 40 state Attorneys General to stop or reduce “annoying and dangerous” robocalls. The multistate group is reviewing, through meetings with several major telecom companies, the technology the companies are pursuing to combat robocalls. According to the announcement, the working group’s goals are to (i) develop an understanding of the technology that is feasible to combat unwanted robocalls; (ii) encourage the major telecom companies to expedite a technological solution for consumers; and (iii) determine if the states should make further recommendations to the FCC. As previously covered by InfoBytes, in October, a group of 35 Attorneys General, including Herring, submitted reply comments to the FCC in response to a public notice seeking ways the FCC could create rules that would enable telephone service providers to block more illegal robocalls. In their comments to the FCC, the coalition encouraged the FCC to implement rules and additional reforms that go beyond the agency’s 2017 call-blocking order, which allows phone companies to proactively block illegal robocalls originating from certain types of phone numbers.
On November 6, the FCC announced that it sent letters to voice providers urging them to participate in “traceback” efforts to help the FCC identify the source of illegal spoofed robocalls. The FCC released copies of the letters that it sent to eight voice providers that are not currently assisting with the USTelecom Industry Traceback Group’s program, which seeks to trace the robocalls that pass through the voice providers’ networks to the originating provider.
In the announcement, the FCC notes that: (i) traceback efforts assist the FCC in identifying the source of illegal calls; and (ii) the FCC receives more complaints from consumers regarding unwanted calls—including scam calls that use spoofing to trick consumers—than any other subject. The FCC emphasizes that “consistent participation of all network operators is critical for helping consumers and enforcing the law.”
On October 30, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin denied a company’s motion to dismiss allegations that it violated the TCPA when it used a predictive dialer to try to collect a debt from the plaintiff. According to the opinion, the plaintiff alleged the company called him repeatedly without permission in an attempt to collect a debt using a predictive dialer. The company moved to dismiss because the plaintiff did not allege that the company used an autodialer with the ability to dial random or sequential phone numbers, which the company argued was required by the TCPA. The court found that a predictive dialer is an autodialer under the TCPA even if it does not generate random or sequential numbers. This conclusion was based on a 2003 FCC ruling, which stated that predictive dialers are autodialers “even if the device does not dial random or sequentially generated numbers.” The court further noted that the decision reached by the D.C. Circuit in ACA International v. FCC—which set aside the FCC’s 2015 interpretation of an autodialer as unreasonably expansive—did not invalidate the FCC’s 2003 order. (See previous Buckley Sandler Special Alert on ACA International here.) Based on this analysis, the court concluded that the plaintiff had established the three elements necessary to allege a TCPA violation.
On October 8, a collation of 35 state Attorneys General submitted reply comments in response to a public notice seeking ways the FCC could create rules that will enable telephone service providers to block illegal robocalls. In their comments to the FCC, the coalition encourages the FCC to implement rules and additional reforms that go beyond the agency’s 2017 call-blocking order, which allows phone companies to proactively block illegal robocalls originating from certain types of phone numbers. (See previous InfoBytes coverage here.) “Many illegal robocallers, however, simply do not care about the law and have a more insidious agenda — casting a net of illegal robocalls to ensnare vulnerable victims in scams to steal money or sensitive, personal information,” the coalition stated. “[C]riminals are estimated to have stolen 9.5 billion dollars from consumers through phone scams in 2017.” The coalition encourages collaboration between states, federal counterparts, and the domestic and international telecommunications industry, and applauds recent progress on the implementation of frameworks such as the “Secure Telephone Identity Revisited” and “Secure Handling of Asserted information using toKENs” protocols that assist service providers in identifying illegally spoofed calls.
On September 26, the FCC announced that it fined a telemarketer and associated companies more than $82 million for using allegedly illegal caller ID spoofing to market and generate leads for health insurance sales in violation of the Truth in Caller ID Act (the Act). The Act prohibits telemarketers from purposefully falsifying caller ID information with the intent to harm, defraud consumers, or wrongfully obtain anything of value. The FCC alleges that the telemarketer made more than 21 million robocalls with spoofed caller ID information, which makes it difficult for consumers to register complaints and for law enforcement to track and stop the illegal calls. According to the related Forfeiture Order (FCC 18-134), the FCC rejected the telemarketer’s argument that the value he received from the calls was not “wrongfully obtained,” concluding that the calls were placed without prior consent, including contacting consumers on the Do Not Call registry, and that the telemarketer knew the tactics he used to obtain the insurance leads were unlawful. The FCC also rejected the telemarketer’s request to reduce the penalty, stating “the proposed forfeiture of $82,106,000 properly reflects the seriousness, duration, and scope of [the telemarketer]’s violations.”
On July 26, the Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, Andrew Smith, testified before subcommittees of the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform regarding the FTC’s program to combat consumer fraud. The prepared testimony discusses the FTC’s anti-fraud program and highlights the agency’s enforcement actions against illicit companies that pose as government agents, such as the IRS, to convince consumers and small businesses to send them money. The FTC touts the steps taken to spur development of technological solutions to unlawful robocalls, including call-blocking and call-filtering products. The testimony also focuses on the FTC’s efforts to curb payment processors from assisting fraudulent actors in violation of the FTC Act. The FTC notes that the Commission has brought 25 actions against payment processors that failed to comply with requirements to ensure their systems were not being used to process fraudulent merchant transactions. The FTC emphasized that while the “overwhelming majority” of payment processors abide by the law, when certain processors do not, they cause “significant economic harm to consumers and legitimate businesses.”
On June 20, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois granted a telecommunication company’s motion to compel arbitration and dismissed a putative class action alleging the company violated the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA). Specifically, the plaintiff brought an action against the telecommunications company for allegedly making unauthorized phone calls using prerecorded messages in an effort to reach account holders to collect unpaid bills. The company moved to compel arbitration because the plaintiff had entered into a “subscriber agreement,” which was provided to him via mail after he agreed to self-install his services, and the agreement requires arbitration of disputes. The court agreed with the company, holding that the arbitration provision of the subscriber agreement covered the dispute because the “Federal Arbitration Act does not require agreements to be signed, only written” and the plaintiff installed and used the telecommunication services, which constituted acceptance of the subscriber agreement.
On June 25, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court held that a national retailer’s use of an automated dialing service to contact debtors without leaving voicemail messages constitutes a violation of the state’s debt collection regulation. According to the opinion, after a consumer defaulted on the retailer’s branded debit card, the retailer began contacting the consumer more than twice a week using an automated dialing service. The retailer did not leave voice messages. In July 2015, the consumer filed suit against the retailer for violating the state debt collection regulation for calling more than two times in a seven-day period in order to collect a debt. The lower court granted summary judgment in favor of the retailer, holding that the automated phone calls were not “communications” under the state regulations and there was no indication the consumer answered and heard the prerecorded message more than twice a week. In reversing the lower court’s decision, the state supreme court rejected the retailer’s argument that it did not “initiate” communications because it was using an automated dialing system and also rejected the argument that the calls did not constitute “communications” because they did not convey any information if the consumer did not answer. The court unanimously held that the retailer’s arguments are contrary to the purpose of the regulation and that the “regulation applies to any attempted telephonic communication. . .in an effort to collect a debt, so long as, as here, the creditor is able to reach the debtor or to leave a voicemail message for the debtor.”
- 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