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  • FFIEC releases statement on examination principles related to discrimination and bias in residential lending

    Federal Issues

    On February 12, the Federal Financial Institutions Examinations Council (FFIEC) released a statement on “Examination Principles Related to Valuation Discrimination and Bias in Residential Lending.” The statement outlined principles that examiners should use to evaluate an institution’s residential property appraisal and valuation practices to mitigate risks that stem from (i) discrimination “based on protected characteristics in the residential property valuation process, and (ii) bias, defined as “a preference or inclination that precludes an appraiser or other preparer of the valuation from reporting with impartiality, independence, or objectivity” as required by the Uniform Standards of Professional Appraisal Practice. Failure to have these internal controls to identify and address discrimination or bias can result in poor credit decisions, consumer harm, increased safety and soundness risk. The principles outlined by the statement are categorized into consumer compliance examination principles and safety and soundness principles. For consumer compliance, examiners should consider an institution’s (i) board and senior management oversight to determine if it is commensurate with the institution’s risk profile; and (ii) consumer compliance policies and procedures to identify and resolve potential discrimination. The principles during a safety and soundness examination should include reviewing the consumer protection issues, governance, collateral valuation program, third-party risk management, valuation review, credit risk review, and training programs. 

    Federal Issues FFIEC CFPB Consumer Finance Mortgages Discrimination

  • SEC Chair Gensler weighs in on AI risks and SEC’s positioning

    Privacy, Cyber Risk & Data Security

    On February 13, SEC Chair Gary Gensler delivered a speech, “AI, Finance, Movies, and the Law” before the Yale Law School. In his speech, Gensler spoke on the crossovers between artificial intelligence (AI) and finance, system-wide risks on a macro-scale, AI offering deception, AI washing, and hallucinations, among other topics.

    Gensler discussed the benefits of using AI in finance, including greater financial inclusion and efficiencies. However, he highlighted that the use of AI amplifies many issues, noting how AI models can be flawed in making decisions, propagating biases, and offering predictions. On a system-wide level, Gensler opined how policy decisions will require new thinking to overcome the challenges to financial stability that AI could create.  Gensler addressed AI washing, stating that it may violate securities laws, emphasizing that any disclosures regarding AI by SEC registrants should still follow the “basics of good securities lawyering” for disclosing material risks, defining the risk carefully, and avoiding disclosures that could mislead the public regarding the use of an AI model. Lastly, Gensler warned about AI hallucinations, saying that advisors or brokers are not supposed to give investment advice based on inaccurate information, closing with “You don’t want your broker or advisor recommending investments they hallucinated while on mushrooms.”

    Privacy, Cyber Risk & Data Security Artificial Intelligence Securities Exchange Act Securities AI

  • Yellen testifies on FSOC Annual Report, key areas of focus

    Federal Issues

    On February 8, the U.S. Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs held a hearing titled “The Financial Stability Oversight Council Annual Report to Congress” with testimony provided by U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen. Secretary Yellen discussed progress, and continued focus, related to five topics addressed in FSOC’s 2023 Annual Report (covered by InfoBytes here): capital risks posed by nonbank financial institutions; climate-related financial stability risks; cybersecurity risks; monitoring artificial intelligence (AI) use in financial services; and digital asset oversight. In response to questioning from Senator Cortez Masto (D-NV), Yellen discussed how FSOC highlighted that about 70 percent of single-family mortgages were originated by nonbank mortgage originators during the first half of 2023. When Secretary Yellen was asked if the shift from banks to nonbanks in the mortgage space poses a financial stability risk “due to non-banks’ lack of access to deposits,” she responded that FSOC is “very focused” on the issue since non-banks are reliant on short-term financing. In addition, Yellen spoke about AI and learning its impact on vulnerabilities and risk, as well as the Basel III proposal, urging regulators to “finalize these rules as quickly as possible.”

    Federal Issues FSOC Department of Treasury U.S. Senate Basel Mortgage Lenders

  • Broker-dealer settles AML allegations with FINRA

    Financial Crimes

    On February 12, FINRA settled allegations with a Florida-based broker-dealer for failing to implement reasonable procedures requiring escalation of potentially suspicious trading activity. Closely following the SEC and DFPI’s recent enforcement action (covered by InfoBytes here), the company, without admitting or denying the allegations, agreed to pay a $700,000 fine to settle claims regarding its failure to effectively implement anti-money laundering (AML) programs. FINRA claimed that the company did not adequately equip its analysts to review and address trading alerts related to suspicious activities by customers, which could total up to 100 alerts per trading day. Additionally, the company allegedly lacked proper written procedures in connection with the acceptance and resale of low-priced securities as required to comply with Section 5 of the Securities Act of 1933 in violation of FINRA Rules. FINRA also noted that, despite being aware that improvements to the AML program were necessary as early as 2016, the company did not fully implement recommended improvements until March 2022. In issuing the fine, FINRA highlighted that the company was fined for similar AML violations back in 2011 and emphasized instances where the company’s analysts failed to escalate suspicious activity to the AML department in a timely manner, leading to regulatory inquiries and subpoenas regarding certain customers’ practices.

    Financial Crimes Broker-Dealer FINRA Anti-Money Laundering Enforcement

  • SEC to expand “dealer” definition after adoption of two rules

    Securities

    On February 6, the SEC announced its adoption of rules expanding application of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 (the Exchange Act) to require market participants that “take on significant liquidity-providing roles” to register with the SEC as “dealers” under Sections 15(a) or 15C. In the introduction to the final rule, the SEC explained that “advancements in electronic trading across securities markets” have led to new market participants playing a larger role in market activity that was traditionally supplied by dealers. Additionally, as noted in the SEC’s Fact Sheet, the rules require such market participants to become members of a self-regulatory organization (SRO) and comply with federal laws. The SEC’s rule changes address the phrase “as part of a regular business” in sections 3(a)(5) and 3(a)(44) of the Exchange Act such that market participants that “take on significant liquidity-providing roles” are included in the statutory definition of “dealer” and “government securities dealer.” However, the final rules will exclude any person that has total assets of less than $50 million, or investment companies registered under the Investment Company Act of 1940, central banks, sovereign entities, and international financial institutions. The final rules will go into effect 60 days following Federal Register publication, and the compliance date will be one year after the effective date of the final rules.

    Securities Broker-Dealer Securities Exchange Act Securities Exchange Commission

  • SEC, DFPI charge unregistered crypto platform

    Securities

    On February 7, the SEC and DFPI announced charges against a Florida-based crypto platform, for failing to register the offer and sale of a crypto lending product that allowed U.S. investors to deposit or purchase crypto assets into an account in exchange for promised interest payments.  

    The SEC found that crypto asset accounts with the “interest feature” were offered and sold by the company as securities in the form of investment contracts but failed to register its offer and sale as required by law. Despite voluntarily halting the offering of the interest feature in 2022, the company agreed to pay a $1.5 million penalty to settle the SEC's charges. The SEC also noted that the company announced its intention to terminate all crypto-related products and services in the U.S. on February 22.   

    In addition, DFPI also entered a consent order with the platform to settle an investigation into the platform’s interest-earning program. The resolution is part of a multistate settlement facilitated by a task force led by California and Washington, comprising of eight state securities regulators. The investigation found that from 2020 through 2022, the platform engaged in the unregistered offer and sale of securities through its crypto interest-earning program. The platform offered the program to investors, allowing them to passively earn interest on crypto assets loaned to the platform. The platform maintained “total discretion” over revenue-generating activities to generate returns for investors, DFPI added. As part of the settlement with DFPI, the company agreed to pay a $1.5 million penalty to the DFPI on behalf of 51 U.S. jurisdictions, mirroring a similar settlement with the SEC for the same amount. 

    Securities DFPI SEC Registration Securities Exchange Commission Consent Order Digital Assets

  • District Court dismisses FDCPA class action lawsuit for lack of standing on alleged concrete injuries suffered

    Courts

    On January 31, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York dismissed an FDCPA class action lawsuit for lack of standing. According to the order, plaintiff alleged numerous violations of the FDCPA related to two debt collection letters sent to the plaintiff and his girlfriend. In September 2023, a debt collector (defendant) reportedly sent two letters to the plaintiff which allegedly did not contain the requisite information mandated by the FDCPA for communication with consumers, including validation and itemization details. One of the letters purportedly demanded payment by September 29, falling within the 30-day validation period. Additionally, plaintiff asserted that one of the letters was addressed to his girlfriend who bore no responsibility for the debt. Plaintiff claimed two concrete injuries: (i) the letters allegedly strained his relationship with his girlfriend, causing emotional distress; and (ii) due to the omission of critical information in the letters, plaintiff felt confused and uncertain about how to effectively respond.  

    In considering the plaintiff’s claims, the court discussed the elements required to state a claim for publicity given to private life and examines a specific case where such a claim was rejected by the court. It highlights that for such a claim to succeed, the matter publicized must be highly offensive to a reasonable person and not of legitimate public concern. Additionally, mere communication of private information to a single person typically does not constitute publicity, unless it has the potential to become public knowledge. Although Congress explicitly prohibits debt collectors from sharing consumer financial information with third parties, the court noted that it “does not automatically transform every arguable invasion of privacy into an actionable, concrete injury.” Therefore, the plaintiff's injury, as pleaded, was deemed insufficiently concrete for standing purposes. Regarding the second alleged injury, the court argued that confusion alone does not suffice as a concrete injury for standing purposes, and courts have determined that mere confusion or frustration does not qualify as an injury. Additionally, the court compared the case to other cases where plaintiffs had alleged confusion yet had also demonstrated further injuries.

    Courts FDCPA Class Action Consumer Finance Litigation Standing Debt Collection

  • Senate Banking Committee hearing on P2P payment scams calls for updates to EFTA definitions

    On February 1, the U.S. Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs held a hearing on “Examining Scams and Fraud in the Banking System and Their Impact on Consumers,” and invited three panelists to testify, including an attorney from a consumer law center and two vice presidents from banking associations. Chairman Sherrod Brown (D-OH) led the hearing by noting that peer-to-peer (P2) apps are a rising target among scammers, alongside a rise in check fraud. The Chairman noted a 2023 alert from FinCEN warning (as covered by InfoBytes here) of a surge in check fraud after a “drastic” rise in scams, and concluded with a statement that the P2P companies need “rules to make them” do better. Next, Ranking Member Senator Tim Scott (R-SC) called for the companies to spend more money developing security technologies to protect consumers from fraud. Sen. Scott then called for better education in financial literacy to learn about scams and methods. 

    At the hearing, Mr. John Breyault noted that reported losses from P2P payment platforms nearly doubled from $87 million in 2020 to $163 million in 2022. Mr. Breyault asked Congress to play a larger role in preventing fraud on P2P platforms and urged the passage of the Protecting Consumers from Payment Scams Act (which would expand EFTA’s definition of unauthorized electronic fund transfer to cover fraudulently induced payments). Ms. Carla Sanchez-Adams, in her testimony, asserted the entire burden of payment fraud should not fall on the customers and advocated for an updated Electronic Funds Transfer Act that protects consumers from fraudulently-induced transactions. She testified that receiving institutions should have more responsibility, and called for anti-fraud policies that protect consumers from having their accounts frozen, among others. Mr. Paul Benda testified to similar points: he called for an increase in consumer education and the closure of regulatory loopholes to stop impersonation scams. He testified in favor of improved information sharing and enhanced collaboration with law enforcement and regulators.  

    Bank Regulatory Peer-to-Peer Fraud Senate Banking Committee EFTA U.S. Senate Federal Issues

  • CFPB secures $12 million after decade-old complaint against foreclosure relief scam company

    Federal Issues

    On February 8, the CFPB announced the resolution of an enforcement action, begun in 2014, against a foreclosure relief operation that allegedly violated Regulation O. After a decade of court orders, opinions, and appeals, on February 5, 2024, the defendants and the CFPB jointly agreed to the dismissal of their respective appeals and on February 7, 2024, the Seventh Circuit dismissed the parties’ appeals. The final settlement required the defendants to pay $10.9 million in consumer redress and a $1.1 million penalty. The enforcement action notes that the defendants remain “subject to the bans” under the district court’s 2022 order. 

    The CFPB had alleged that the defendants violated Reg. O by taking payments from consumers for (i) mortgage modifications before they signed an agreement from their lender; (ii) failing to make required disclosures; (iii) directing consumers not to contact lenders; and (iv) making deceptive statements to consumers. As previously reported by InfoBytes, the CFPB and the Florida Attorney General obtained a judgment against this group in May 2015 for parallel violations.  

    Federal Issues CFPB Enforcement Foreclosure Regulation O Seventh Circuit Appellate

  • SEC charges alleged hedge fund with defrauding $1.2 million from investors

    Financial Crimes

    On February 2, the SEC issued a complaint which charged a company for allegedly raising $1.2 million from 15 investors through an offer and sale of fraudulent securities for a hedge fund. The company raised this money from 2017-2018 and offered securities that would be used to form a hedge fund and invest in crypto-assets using “specific” investment strategies. (The company ostensibly managed the hedge fund, but the hedge fund never appeared to be created.) 

    The company made several misrepresentations which the SEC claimed violated Section 17(a) of the Securities Act of 1933 and Section 10(b) and Rule 10b-5 of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934. These alleged misrepresentations included the founder’s background and education, the demand for and size of the proposed hedge fund, and the investment scheme to grow a return for investors. The investors were given an investor pitch deck that put forth the hedge fund’s terms, investment strategy, and management team. Then, the investors gave a minimum investment of $1 million; however, the hedge fund investors were offered the opportunity to invest for less than $1 million through a separate entity.  

    Through this, the SEC alleged that the company violated the federal securities law and put forth two claims for relief. The SEC permanently enjoins the company from issuing, buying, offering, or selling any security, including crypto-assets. No civil monetary judgment has been offered. 

    Financial Crimes SEC Securities Cryptocurrency Enforcement

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