Subscribe to our InfoBytes Blog weekly newsletter and other publications for news affecting the financial services industry.
On July 21, the CFPB marked its 10 year anniversary. Prepared remarks published by acting Director Dave Uejio highlighted Bureau activities taken over the past decade in consumer empowerment and racial equity, as well as recent actions in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. With respect to enforcement, Uejio noted that since 2011, the Bureau’s work has led to approximately $14.4 billion in consumer relief and $1.7 billion in civil penalties. According to a Bureau blog post, during this time period more than 183 million consumers and consumer accounts have received economic redress and consumers have filed more than 3 million complaints. Additionally, over 7 million consumers have accessed the Bureau’s Covid-19 educational materials. “In the decade to come, we will continue to use all the tools at our disposal to empower American consumers and work to ensure the financial markets they interact with are fair, transparent, and competitive,” Uejio wrote.
On July 19, the SEC announced a settlement with a financial services company for its role in alleged compliance failures connected to volatility-linked-exchange traded products (ETPs). According to the order, the issuer of the ETP, which was designed to track short-term volatility expectations in the market as measured against derivatives of a volatility index, warned the company that it was not suitable to hold the product for extended periods of time, and that the product’s offering documents proved that the product’s value was likely to decline. The SEC alleged that the company violated the Advisers Act and Advisers Act Rule, such as Section 206(4), because the company failed to adopt reasonably designed written policies and procedures directed at ETPs and failed to implement its existing policies and procedures. The order includes allegations that the company prohibited brokerage representatives from soliciting sales of the product and placed other sales restrictions of the product, but did not place similar restrictions on some financial advisers’ use of the product in discretionary managed client accounts. The order further noted that the company allegedly adopted a concentration limit on ETPs but failed to implement a system for monitoring and enforcing that limit for five years. The order, which the company consented to without admitting or denying the findings, imposes a civil money penalty of approximately $8 million and $96,344 in disgorgement, and requires the company to cease and desist from committing or causing any future violations of Section 206(4) of the Advisers Act and Advisers Act Rule.
On July 19, OFAC announced a $415,695 settlement with the United Arab Emirates (UAE)-based head regional office of a Sweden-based equipment company for apparent violations of the Iranian Transactions and Sanctions Regulations (ITSR). According to OFAC’s website notice, between 2015 and 2016, the UAE company allegedly conspired with Dubai- and Iran-based companies to export equipment from the U.S. to Iran. As a result, the UAE company caused its U.S.-based affiliate to indirectly export goods to Iran by incorrectly listing a Dubai-based company on its export documentation as the end-user. The conspiracy also allegedly included the organization of additional sales of the equipment in the same manner as the initial sale, which ultimately ended when the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Industry and Security requested post-shipment verification that showed certain products in question were reexported to Iran.
In arriving at the settlement amount, OFAC considered various aggravating factors, including that (i) the UAE company did not voluntarily self-disclose the apparent violations; (ii) the UAE company “willfully violated the ITSR” by conspiring to export goods from the U.S. to Iran by “obfuscating the end-user’s identity from its U.S. affiliate,” thus causing the U.S. affiliate to violate the ITSR; (iii) multiple managers had actual knowledge of the conduct giving rise to the apparent violations; and (iv) the UAE company “caused harm to the integrity of the ITSR by circumventing U.S. sanctions and conferring an economic benefit to Iran’s energy sector.”
OFAC also considered various mitigating factors, including that (i) none of the relevant subsidiaries, including the UAE company, have received a penalty notice from OFAC in the preceding five years; (ii) the UAE company, through the U.S. affiliate, conducted an internal investigation resulting in numerous remedial measures, including taking disciplinary actions against participating individuals, adopting an enhanced review and screening process for Iran-related transactions, and conducting additional in-person training; and (iii) the UAE company, through the U.S. affiliate, provided substantial cooperation to OFAC during the investigation.
OFAC separately reached a $16,875 settlement with a Virginia-based U.S. subsidiary for its apparent ITSR violations arising from this matter. The Virginia subsidiary did not voluntarily self-disclose the apparent violations, but agreed to the settlement on behalf of a former Pennsylvania-based subsidiary that allegedly referred a known Iranian business opportunity to its foreign affiliate in Dubai. This foreign affiliate, OFAC claimed, then “orchestrated a scheme to export goods” from the U.S. to Iran.
On July 19, the SEC announced that it had obtained a temporary restraining order and asset freeze to halt an ongoing fraud offering by a Las Vegas-based company and two individual defendants, including a recidivist, (collectively, “defendants”) that allegedly raised more than $12 million from nearly 300 retail investors. According to the complaint, the defendants violated several provisions of securities laws by allegedly promising investors that their money would be invested in securities, bitcoin, and other cryptocurrencies based on recommendations made by an “[a]rtificial intelligence supercomputer,” which allegedly “consistently generate[d] enormous returns” and allowed the defendants to guarantee fixed returns of 20-30 percent annually with compounding interest. However, the SEC alleged that over 90 percent of the defendants’ funds came from investors, and that the defendants did not use these funds for the stated purposes. Rather, defendants transferred millions of dollars to one of the individual defendant’s personal bank accounts, paid millions of dollars to promoters who led investors to the defendants, and made “Ponzi-like” payments to other investors. The complaint seeks permanent injunctions, disgorgement, prejudgment interest, and civil penalties.
On July 16, the FTC announced a $1.6 million settlement with a New Jersey-based septic tank cleaning company, its officers, and an individual connected to the officers (collectively, “defendants”) for allegedly making illegal robocalls to consumers, including tens of millions of calls to numbers listed on the FTC’s Do Not Call Registry. The complaint, which was filed on behalf of the FTC by the DOJ in July, alleged that the defendants violated the FTC Act and the Telemarketing Sales Rule, among other things, by engaging in illegal telemarketing practices, including the use of prerecorded messages. The defendants allegedly falsely told consumers they were calling from an unnamed “environmental company” to provide consumers with “free info” regarding their septic tank cleaning products. In addition, the defendants allegedly sent letters to customers “threatening to direct their purportedly delinquent accounts to a collection agency or legal department even though [the company] never intended to send customer accounts to either a collections agency or legal department.” Under the terms of the stipulated final order, the defendants are, among other things: (i) permanently banned from engaging in telemarketing; (ii) prohibited from making misrepresentations to consumers regarding referrals to attorneys or collection agencies or material facts concerning goods or services; (iii) prohibited from billing or attempting to collect payments from any consumers connected to the sale of their septic tank cleaning products; and (vi) required to notify all customers with unpaid balances that their balances have been cancelled. A $10.2 million monetary judgment will be partially suspended after the officers pay approximately $1.6 million and the individual pays $15,000 to the U.S. Treasury.
On July 21, the SEC announced that it awarded a whistleblower approximately $3 million for providing information that, according to the redacted order, led to a successful SEC enforcement action. The SEC noted that the whistleblower helped open the investigation and conserved resources by giving valuable information and ongoing assistance, such as providing documents that helped staff understand key components in the investigation.
Earlier on July 15, the SEC announced that it awarded a whistleblower more than $1 million for providing information that, according to the redacted order, also led to a successful SEC enforcement action. The SEC noted that the whistleblower helped conserve significant staff time and resources by giving valuable information and ongoing assistance, such as participating in interviews with enforcement staff, and providing documents that helped staff understand key components in the investigation.
The SEC has awarded approximately $942 million to 186 individuals since issuing its first award in 2012.
On July 14, the FTC announced an $18 million settlement with a financial services company (defendant) over allegations that it deceived consumers. The FTC originally filed a complaint in 2018 claiming, among other things, that the defendant violated the FTC Act, the Privacy of Consumer Financial Information Rule, and the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, by falsely advertising loans with “no hidden fees” and misleading consumers with respect to whether their loan applications had been approved. The complaint also alleged that the defendant withdrew double payments from consumers’ accounts and continued to charge consumers who cancelled automatic payments or paid off their loan, leading to overdraft fees and preventing borrowers from making other payments. Under the terms of the stipulated final order, the defendant is permanently barred from (i) misrepresenting fee amounts, the status of an application, and other material facts concerning any extension of credit; and (ii) making any representation about a specific loan amount prior to accepting a loan application, without clear and conspicuous disclosure of the dollar amount of any prepaid, up-front, or origination fee or the total amount of funds that would be disbursed to the consumer.
On July 14, the SEC announced a settlement with the owners and operators of a software platform provider, resolving allegations that the company violated anti-touting provisions by failing to disclose the compensation it received from issuers of the digital asset securities it profiled. According to the order, the company’s website, which was accessible in the U.S. from 2016 to August 2019, publicized offerings for digital tokens. The platform claimed to “list” or profile the “best” token offerings, such as so-called initial coin offerings (ICOs) and initial exchange offerings. The company also allegedly claimed that its “mission [was] to make it easy and safe for people around the world to join ICOs.” According to the order, the platform profiled more than 2,500 different token offerings, which compromised fundraising of over $10 billion. The SEC alleged that the company violated provisions of the Securities Act, such as Section 2(a), because the digital tokens publicized by the company included those that were offered and sold as investment contracts, and 17(b), because the company promoted a security without disclosing that they received compensation for doing so. The order, which the company consented to without admitting or denying the findings, imposes a civil money penalty of $154,434 and $43,000 in disgorgement, and provides that the company must cease and desist from committing or causing any future violations of the anti-touting provisions of the federal securities laws. SEC Commissioners Hester M. Peirce and Elad L. Roisman dissented from the settlement, stating they agreed that “touting securities without disclosing the fact that you are getting paid, and how much, violates Section 17(b)” but “[they] are disappointed that the Commission’s settlement with [the company] did not explain which digital assets touted by [the company] were securities[.]”
On July 14, the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California entered a stipulated final judgment and order against the named defendant in a 2019 action brought by the CFPB, the Minnesota and North Carolina attorneys general, and the Los Angeles City Attorney. which had alleged a student loan debt relief operation deceived thousands of student-loan borrowers and charged more than $71 million in unlawful advance fees. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the complaint asserted that the defendants violated the CFPA, the Telemarketing Sales Rule, and various state laws. A second amended complaint also included claims for avoidance of fraudulent transfers under the FDCPA and California’s Uniform Voidable Transactions Act.
In 2019, the named defendant filed a voluntary petition for Chapter 11 relief, which was later converted to a Chapter 7 case. As the defendant is a Chapter 7 debtor and no longer conducting business, the Bureau did not seek its standard compliance and reporting requirements. Instead, the finalized settlement prohibits the defendant from resuming operations, disclosing or using customer information obtained during the course of offering or providing debt relief services, or attempting “to collect, sell, assign, or otherwise transfer any right to collect payment” from any consumers who purchased or agreed to purchase debt relief services. The defendant is also required to pay more than $35 million in redress to affected consumers, a $1 civil money penalty to the Bureau, and $5,000 in civil money penalties to each of the three states.
On July 12, the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland issued an opinion denying several motions filed by parties in litigation stemming from a 2016 complaint filed by the CFPB, which alleged the defendants employed abusive practices when purchasing structured settlements from consumers in exchange for lump-sum payments. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the Bureau claimed the defendants violated the CFPA by encouraging consumers to take advances on their structured settlements and falsely representing that the consumers were obligated to complete the structured settlement sale, “even if they [later] realized it was not in their best interest.” After the court rejected several of the defendants’ arguments to dismiss based on procedural grounds and allowed the CFPB’s UDAAP claims against the structured settlement buyer and its officers to proceed, the CFPB filed an amended complaint in 2017 alleging unfair, deceptive, and abusive acts and practices and seeking a permanent injunction, damages, disgorgement, redress, civil penalties and costs.
In the newest memorandum opinion, the court considered a motion to dismiss the amended complaint and a motion for judgment on the pleadings on the grounds that the enforcement action was barred by the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Seila Law LLC v. CFPB, which held that that the director’s for-cause removal provision was unconstitutional (covered by a Buckley Special Alert), and that the ratification of the enforcement action “came too late” because the statute of limitations on the CFPA claims had already expired. The court reviewed, among other things, whether the doctrine of equitable tolling saved the case from dismissal and cited a separate action issued by the Middle District of Pennsylvania which concluded that an “action was timely filed under existing law, at a time where there was no finding that a provision of the Dodd-Frank Act was unconstitutional.” While noting that the ruling was not binding, the court found the facts in that case to be similar to the action at issue and the analysis to be persuasive. As such, the court denied the motion to dismiss and the motion for judgment on the pleadings, and determined that the Bureau may pursue the enforcement action originally filed in 2016.
- Jeffrey P. Naimon to provide “Fair lending update” at the Colorado Mortgage Lenders Association Operational and Compliance Forum
- Jonice Gray Tucker to discuss “Justice for all: Achieving racial equity through fair lending” at CBA Live
- Warren W. Traiger to discuss “On the horizon for CRA modernization” at CBA Live
- Jonice Gray Tucker to discuss "Fair lending" at the Mortgage Bankers Association Regulatory Compliance Conference
- Michelle L. Rogers to discuss “State law regulatory and enforcement trends” at the Mortgage Bankers Association Regulatory Compliance Conference
- Jonice Gray Tucker to discuss “Government investigations, and compliance 2021 trends” at the Corporate Counsel Women of Color Career Strategies Conference
- Max Bonici to discuss “BSA/AML trends: What to expect with the implementation of the AML Act of 2020” at the American Bar Association Banking Law Fall Meeting
- H Joshua Kotin to discuss “Modifications and exiting forbearance” at the National Association of Federal Credit Unions Regulatory Compliance Seminar
- Jonice Gray Tucker to discuss “Fintech trends” at the BIHC Network Elevating Black Excellence Regional Summit
- Jonice Gray Tucker to discuss "Consumer financial services" at the Practising Law Institute Banking Law Institute