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On May 6, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit held that (i) the CFPB’s single-director structure is constitutional, and that (ii) the district court did not err when it granted the Bureau’s petition to enforce a law firm’s compliance with a 2017 civil investigative demand (CID). As previously covered by InfoBytes, the CFPB previously determined that none of the objections raised by the law firm warranted setting aside or modifying the CID, which sought information to determine whether the law firm violated the Telemarketing Sales Rule (TSR) when providing debt-relief services. The law firm contended that the CFPB’s single-director structure was unconstitutional and therefore the CID was unlawful. It argued further that the CFPB lacked statutory authority to issue the CID.
On review, the 9th Circuit held that the for-cause removal restriction of the CFPB’s single director is constitutionally permissible based on existing Supreme Court precedent. The panel agreed with the conclusion reached by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit majority in the 2018 en banc decision in PHH v. CFPB (covered by a Buckley Special Alert) stating, “if an agency’s leadership is protected by a for-cause removal restriction, the President can arguably exert more effective control over the agency if it is headed by a single individual rather an a multi-member body.” The 9th Circuit noted that the dissenting opinion of then Court of Appeals Judge Brett Kavanaugh found that the single-director structure was unconstitutional and noted that “[t]he Supreme Court is of course free to revisit those precedents, but we are not.”
The 9th Circuit next addressed the law firm’s argument that the CFPB lacked statutory authority when it issued the CID. The panel held that the TSR “does not exempt attorneys from its coverage even when they are engaged in providing legal services,” and therefore, the Bureau has investigative authority without regard to the Consumer Financial Protection Act’s (CFPA) practice-of-law exclusion. In addition, the panel rejected the law firm’s argument that the CID was vague or overly broad, and stated that the CID fully complied with the CFPA’s requirements and identified the allegedly illegal conduct and violations.
On May 2, the CFPB announced that it had filed a lawsuit against Utah-based credit repair telemarketers and their affiliates (defendants) for allegedly committing deceptive acts and practices in violation of the Telemarketing Sales Rule (TSR) and the Consumer Financial Protection Act (CFPA). According to the complaint filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Utah, the CFPB alleges the defendants charged consumers a fee for telemarketed credit repair services when they signed up for the services, and then monthly thereafter, without (i) waiting for the timeframe in which they represented their services would be provided to expire; and (ii) demonstrating that the promised results have been achieved, in the form of a consumer report issued more than six months after those results were achieved, as required by the TSR. Additionally, the CFPB alleges that certain defendants made false and misleading claims constituting deceptive acts under the CFPA. Specifically, the CFPB alleges those defendants marketed that guaranteed, or high-likelihood, loans or rent-to-own housing offers would be available through affiliates after signing up for credit repair services when in actuality, the products were not available. The CFPB is seeking restitution, civil money penalties, and injunctive relief against the defendants.
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 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 March 5, the FTC announced the U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona entered three orders on February 26, settling the FTC’s case against the operators of a telemarketing grant scheme. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the FTC’s complaint alleged the operators charged consumers upfront fees ranging from $295 to $4,995 and promised to obtain $10,000 or more in government, corporate, or private grants that could help the consumers pay off personal expenses such as medical bills; however, “most, if not all,” of the consumers ultimately received nothing in return. The three stipulated orders (available here, here, and here) impose a suspended $3 million judgment, (based on the operators’ inability to pay) and: (i) require the operators to surrender significant assets; (ii) ban the operators from telemarketing or making misrepresentations or unsubstantiated claims about any product or services; and (iii) prohibit the operators from making false or misleading statements to financial entities, including misrepresenting businesses to payment processors and banks.
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.
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.”
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