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  • Supplement marketer again settles with FTC over negative option marketing

    Federal Issues

    On September 22, the FTC announced a $1.04 million settlement with a supplement marketer and its two officers (collectively, “defendants”), resolving allegations that the defendants engaged in deceptive sales and billing practices, in violation of the Restore Online Shoppers’ Confidence Act (ROSCA), the Telemarketing Sales Rule (TSR), and a previous court order. Previously, in 2016, the marketer entered into a settlement with the FTC covering allegations that the company engaged in negative option marketing by enrolling consumers in a membership program that billed up to $79.99 monthly unless the consumers canceled within an 18-day trial period. The 2016 settlement barred the company from, among other things, (i) obtaining consumers’ billing information without first disclosing they would be charged, that the charge would increase after a certain period, or that the charge would be reoccurring; (ii) obtaining payment from consumers without express written authorization; and (iii) failing to provide a simple way for consumers to cancel.

    According to the FTC’s new complaint, from 2016 to 2019, the defendants violated the previous consent order, ROSCA, and TSR by failing to clearly and conspicuously disclose that in order to cancel, consumers must contact the company “at least one day before the end of the advertised Free Trial Period to avoid being charged for the monthly membership program.” The agreed-upon proposed contempt order requires the defendants to pay nearly $1.04 million to be used for equitable relief, including consumer redress.

    Federal Issues FTC ROSCA Disclosures Negative Option Enforcement Telemarketing Sales Rule

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  • FTC settles first consumer protection case against a VoIP service provider

    Federal Issues

    On September 22, the FTC and the Ohio attorney general announced several proposed stipulated final orders against a Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) service provider, along with an affiliated company, the VoIP service provider’s former CEO and president, and a number of other subsidiaries and individuals, to settle allegations concerning their facilitation of a credit card interest rate reduction scheme. This marks the FTC’s first consumer protection case against a VoIP service provider. According to the FTC and the AG, the VoIP service provider provided one of the defendants with the ability to place illegal robocalls in order to market “phony credit card interest rate reduction services.” Both of these defendants were controlled by the VoIP service provider’s former CEO who was also named in the lawsuit. In addition, the defendant that placed the illegal calls, along with four additional defendants, are accused of managing the overseas call centers and other components used in the credit card interest rate reduction scheme.

    One of the settlements will prohibit the former CEO, along with two corporations under his control, from (i) participating in any telemarketing in the U.S.; (ii) marketing any debt relief products or services; and (iii) making misrepresentations when selling or marketing any products or services. These defendants will collectively be subject to a $7.5 million judgment, which is mostly suspended due to their inability to pay.

    The settlement with the VoIP service provider and the affiliated company will require a payment of $1.95 million. The VoIP service provider and its U.S.-based subsidiaries will also be prohibited from hiring the former CEO or any of his immediate family members, as well as from hiring two of the other defendants. These defendants will also be required to follow client screening and monitoring provisions, and are prohibited from providing VoIP and related services to clients who pay with stored value cards or cryptocurrency, or to clients who do not maintain public-facing websites or a social media presence. Additionally, the defendants will be required to block calls that may appear to come from certain suspicious phone numbers, block calls that use spoofing technology, and terminate certain high-risk relationships.

    The settlements (see here, here, and here) reached with the defendant that placed the illegal calls and four additional defendants include prohibitions similar to those issued against the former CEO, and will require the payment of a total combined judgment of $10.3 million, which will be largely suspended due to their inability to pay.

    All settlements are subject to court approval.

    Federal Issues FTC Enforcement Telemarketing Sales Rule VoIP State Attorney General Credit Cards Interest Rate Consumer Finance

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  • SEC issues two separate whistleblower awards totaling over $2.65 million

    Securities

    On September 21, the SEC announced a $2.4 million award to a whistleblower in connection with a successful agency enforcement action. The SEC’s press release states that the whistleblower’s “timely submission of information” led to the initiation of an investigation and enforcement action that stopped the ongoing misconduct. The redacted order determining the whistleblower award claim states that the whistleblower’s information helped SEC staff “identify key witnesses and parties and draft targeted subpoenas, which saved the staff time and resources in conducting the investigation.”

    Earlier on September 17, the SEC announced a nearly $250,000 joint whistleblower award in connection with a successful agency enforcement action. According to the SEC’s press release, the whistleblowers raised their concerns internally before reporting the potential securities violations to the SEC. According to the redacted order, the claimants’ concerns prompted enforcement staff to open an investigation. The order notes, however, that while the claimants’ information identified certain parties and transactions that were ultimately subjects of the covered action, “many of their allegations did not directly relate to the Commission’s charges” in covered action, which played a role in the SEC’s determination of the appropriate award percentage.

    The SEC has now paid a total of $523 million to 97 individuals since the inception of the program.

    Securities SEC Enforcement Whistleblower

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  • CFPB settles with auto lender on unfair LDW practices

    Federal Issues

    On September 21, the CFPB announced a settlement with a California-based auto-loan servicer to resolve allegations that the company engaged in unfair practices with respect to its Loss Damage Waiver (LDW) product, in violation of the Consumer Financial Protection Act. The CFPB alleged that the company engaged in unfair practices by charging certain borrowers for LDW coverage, but then failed to provide the coverage. Specifically, the LDW agreement allowed the company to suspend coverage if borrowers became 10-days delinquent on their auto loans. The company, however, continued to charge borrowers LDW premiums even though coverage was no longer being provided. The Bureau also alleged that the company assessed LDW claim-related fees that were not disclosed in the LDW contract, which the borrowers were not contractually obligated to pay.

    Under the terms of the consent order, the company is required to pay more than $1.3 million in consumer redress to approximately 4,000 impacted consumers, as well as a $100,000 civil money penalty. The order also prohibits the company from “failing to provide consumers with LDW coverage, collateral protection insurance, or similar products or services for which [the company] has charged consumers” or from “charging consumers fees that are not authorized by its LDW contracts.”

    Federal Issues CFPB Enforcement Auto Finance Unfair UDAAP

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  • NYDFS enforces its debt collection regulation for the first time

    State Issues

    On September 16, NYDFS filed a statement of charges against a debt collector for allegedly failing to honor consumers’ requests for substantiation of debt. This is the first enforcement action alleging violations of New York’s Debt Collection Regulation, 23 NYCRR Part 1, which was promulgated in 2015. New York law dictates that substantiation must be provided within 60 days after receiving a request, and specifies what documentation must be provided to substantiate the debt. Charges filed against the company allege that requests made by consumers for information proving the validity of the debt and the company’s right to collect the debt were not honored in several ways, such as failing to provide (i) any substantiation to dozens of consumers; (ii) sufficient substantiation to hundreds of consumers, for example, by omitting a complete chain of title or underlying transaction documents; and (iii) substantiation within the required timeframes. NYDFS maintains that the company’s actions violate 23 NYCRR Part 1, Section 1.4, and that such violation carries civil penalties of up to $1,000 per offense under state law. Additionally, NYDFS claims that “each failure to provide any substantiation, timely substantiation, or sufficient substantiation of debt constitutes an independent offense.” A hearing is scheduled for January 12, 2021 before a hearing officer to be appointed by the Superintendent of Financial Services.

    State Issues NYDFS Debt Collection Enforcement

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  • Joint settlement requires forgiveness on $330 million of student loans

    Federal Issues

    On September 15, the CFPB filed a complaint and proposed stipulated judgment against a trust, along with three banks acting in their capacity as trustees to the trust, for allegedly providing substantial assistance to a now defunct for-profit educational institution in engaging in unfair acts and practices in violation of the Consumer Financial Protection Act. The Bureau asserted that the trust owned and managed private loans for students attending the defunct institution, even though the trust “allegedly knew or was reckless in not knowing that many student borrowers did not understand the terms and conditions of those loans, could not afford them, or in some cases did not even know they had them.” The Bureau alleged that the defunct institution induced students to take out loans through several unfair practices, including “using aggressive tactics, and in some cases, gaining unauthorized access to student accounts to sign students up for loans without permission.” These loans, the Bureau contended, carried default rates well above what was expected for student loans. According to the Bureau, the trust was allegedly actively involved in the servicing, managing, and collection of these student loans.

    If approved by the court, the Bureau’s proposed settlement would require the trust to (i) cease collection efforts on all outstanding loans owned and managed by the trust; (ii) discharge all outstanding loans owned and managed by the trust; (iii) ask all consumer reporting agencies to delete information related to the trust’s loans; and (iv) notify all affected consumers of these actions. The Bureau estimated that the total amount of loan forgiveness is roughly $330 million.

    This settlement is the third reached by the Bureau in relation to the defunct institution’s private loan programs. In 2019, the defunct institution reached a settlement with the Bureau (covered by InfoBytes here), which required the payment of a $60 million judgment. Additionally, the Bureau entered into another settlement in 2019 with a different company that managed student loans for the defunct institution’s students, which required the loan management company to comply with similar requirements as the trust (covered by InfoBytes here).

    Also on September 15, attorneys general from 47 states plus the District of Columbia reached a national settlement with the trust.

    Federal Issues CFPB Enforcement State Attorney General State Issues Settlement UDAAP Unfair Student Lending

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  • CFTC charges multi-level cryptocurrency marketing scheme

    Securities

    On September 11, the CFTC filed a complaint in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas against four individuals accused of operating a purported multi-level marketing scheme involving the solicitation of nearly $100,000 in customer funds that were to be used to speculate in cryptocurrency. The CFTC alleged that the defendants violated the Commodity Exchange Act by, among other things, creating the false illusion that their business employed “master traders” with years of cryptocurrency trading experience, that customers’ earnings would increase based on the amount of their deposits, and that customers who made referrals would receive bonuses. Additionally, the defendants posted misleading trade statements online that failed to “accurately reflect the Bitcoin trading purportedly undertaken by [the d]efendants and led certain customers to believe they were earning significant amounts of money from [the d]efendants’ trading of Bitcoin on their behalf.” The CFTC further claimed that when customers tried to unsuccessfully withdraw their funds, the defendants would first claim their website or smartphone app were experiencing technical problems, but then eventually stopped responding to the customer requests. The CFTC seeks to enjoin the defendants’ allegedly unlawful acts and practices, to compel compliance with the Commodity Exchange Act and CFTC regulations, and to further enjoin the defendants from engaging in any commodity interest-related activity. In addition, the CFTC seeks civil monetary penalties, restitution, trading and registration bans, and other statutory, injunctive, or equitable relief as the court may deem necessary and appropriate.

    Securities CFTC Enforcement Cryptocurrency Commodity Exchange Act

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  • SEC issues $10 million whistleblower award

    Securities

    On September 14, the SEC announced a more than $10 million award to a whistleblower in connection with a successful agency enforcement action. According to the SEC’s press release, the whistleblower’s information and assistance “were of crucial importance” to the action. The redacted order on the whistleblower award claim states that (i) the whistleblower provided “extensive and ongoing assistance,” which included “identifying witnesses and helping staff understand complex fact patterns and issues”; (ii) the SEC used the information to “craft its initial document requests” and create its investigation plan; and (iii) the whistleblower “made persistent efforts to remedy the issues, while suffering hardships.”

    Securities SEC Whistleblower Enforcement

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  • SEC charges participants of two allegedly fraudulent ICOs

    Securities

    On September 11, the SEC announced charges against five Atlanta-based individuals for allegedly promoting unregistered and fraudulent initial coin offerings (ICOs) owned by one of the defendants, a film producer, who promised investors he would build a digital streaming platform and a digital-asset trading platform. Two companies controlled by the film producer that conducted the ICOs were also charged. According to the SEC’s complaint, the film producer, among other things, allegedly misappropriated the funds raised in the ICOs, transferred and sold certain tokens to generate an additional $2.2 million in profits, and engaged in manipulative trading to artificially inflate the price of other tokens. The SEC charged the film producer with violating the registration, antifraud, and anti-manipulation provisions of the federal securities laws. The other defendants were charged with various securities violations, including violating registration, antifraud, and anti-touting provisions for their roles in promoting, offering, selling, or conducting the ICOs. The complaint seeks injunctive relief, disgorgement, and civil monetary penalties, as well as an officer-and-director bar against the film producer and certain prohibitions against the other defendants.

    The SEC’s press release noted that it had entered into proposed settlements subject to court approval with several of the defendants except for the film producer, which would require three of the defendants to each pay a $25,000 penalty and subject them to “conduct-based injunctions prohibiting them from participating in the issuance, purchase, offer, or sale of any digital asset security for a period of five years.” An order reached with another defendant—who neither admitted nor denied the findings—imposes a $75,000 civil monetary penalty and bans the defendant from participating in the offering or sale of digital-asset securities for at least five years.

    Securities SEC Enforcement Initial Coin Offerings

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  • DOJ settles SCRA action with Florida towing company

    Federal Issues

    On September 10, the DOJ announced a Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA) settlement with a Florida-based towing and storage company, resolving allegations that the company auctioned cars owned by active duty servicemembers without first obtaining a court order. According to the complaint, filed on the same day as the settlement, the DOJ initiated the investigation into the company after “becoming aware of a complaint” by a U.S. Navy Lieutenant whose car was towed while he was deployed abroad. The DOJ asserts that between 2013 and 2020, the company “auctioned off motor vehicles, without court orders, belonging to at least 33 SCRA-protected servicemembers.” The settlement requires the company to pay nearly $100,000 in compensation to affected servicemembers and a $20,000 civil money penalty. Additionally, the company must develop new SCRA policies and procedures for enforcing storage liens and provide annual SCRA compliance training to all of its employees.

    Federal Issues SCRA DOJ Enforcement

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