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On November 19, the FTC entered into a settlement with defendants accused of engaging in deceptive practices when marketing and selling student loan debt relief services. As part of its enforcement initiative, Operation Game of Loans (covered by InfoBytes here), the FTC alleged that the defendants violated the FTC Act and Telemarketing Sales Rule (TSR) by, among other things, charging illegal up-front fees to enroll consumers in debt relief programs, accepting monthly payments that were not applied towards student loans, and collecting monthly fees that consumers believed were being applied to their loans but instead were going towards unrelated “financial education” programs (see previous InfoBytes coverage here). Under the terms of the order, the defendants are permanently banned from providing secured and unsecured debt relief products and services, and are prohibited from (i) engaging in unlawful telemarketing practices and violating the TSR; (ii) misrepresenting financial products and services; (iii) making unsubstantiated claims; and (iii) collecting, or assigning any right to collect, payments from consumers for products sold by the defendants. The defendants are also ordered to pay $62 million in monetary relief.
On October 15, the CFPB Private Education Loan Ombudsman published its annual report on consumer complaints submitted between September 1, 2017 and August 31, 2019. The report, titled Annual Report of the CFPB Student Loan Ombudsman, is based on approximately 20,600 complaints received by the Bureau relating to federal and private student loan servicing, debt collection, and debt relief services. The report focuses primarily on complaints and student loan debt relief scams, which are, according to Private Education Loan Ombudsman Robert G. Cameron, “two subjects that, if promptly addressed, may have the greatest immediate impact in preventing potential harm to borrowers.” Of the 20,600 complaints, roughly 13,900 pertained to federal student loans with approximately 6,700 related to private student loans. Both categories reflect a decrease in total complaints from previous years. The report also notes that the Bureau handled roughly 4,600 complaints related to student loan debt collection.
The report goes on to discuss collaborative efforts between federal and state law enforcement agencies, including the CFPB, FTC, Department of Education, and state attorneys general, to address student loan debt relief scams. According to the report, the FTC’s Operation Game of Loans (previous InfoBytes coverage here) has yielded settlements and judgments totaling over $131 million for the past two years, while Bureau actions (taken on its own and with state agencies) have resulted in judgments exceeding $17 million.
The report provides several recommendations, including that policymakers, the Department of Education, and the Bureau “assess and consider the sharing of information, analytical tools, education outreach, and expertise” to prevent borrower harm, and that when harm occurs, “reduce the window in which harm is occurring through timely identification and remediation.” With regard to student loan debt relief scams, the report recommends, among other things, that enforcement should be expanded “beyond civil enforcement actions to criminal enforcement actions at all levels.”
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.
On September 28, as part of Operation Game of Loans, a coordinated effort between the FTC and state law enforcement, the FTC announced settlements with several individuals and their associated companies (defendants), accused of violating the FTC Act and the Telemarketing Sales Rule when marketing and selling student debt relief services. According to the FTC, the defendants, among other claims: allegedly (i) misrepresented to consumers that they were affiliated with the Department of Education or a borrower’s loan servicer; (ii) claimed that consumers who paid an up-front fee—as much as $1,000 according to the FTC’s complaint—would qualify for or be approved to receive permanently reduced monthly payments or have their student loans forgiven or discharged; and (iii) engaged in deceptive advertising practices through social media, falsely claiming they could qualify, establish eligibility for, approve, or enroll consumers in loan forgiveness programs.
Under the terms of the settlements, the defendants are permanently banned from advertising, marketing, promoting, offering for sale, or selling any type of debt relief products or services—or from assisting others to do the same. The defendants also are prohibited from making misrepresentations related to financial products and services. Combined, the settlements total more than $19 million in monetary judgments, all of which have been partially suspended due to the defendants’ inability to pay the entire amount of their respective judgments. The more than $5 million in unsuspended amounts may be used for equitable relief, including consumer redress.
On June 8, the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California approved an order requiring an owner and his multiple student debt relief companies (defendants) to pay almost $12 million to settle allegations that the defendants violated the FTC Act and Telemarketing Sales Rule (TSR) when marketing and selling student debt relief services. As part of a coordinated effort between the FTC and state law enforcement called Operation Game of Loans, the FTC filed a complaint in September 2017 alleging the defendants, among other things, charged upfront and monthly fees to enroll students in free government programs to manage student loan debt, but did not perform any services. Additionally, the FTC alleged that the defendants marketed themselves as associated with the Department of Education and called consumers listed on the Do Not Call Registry. Under the settlement order, in addition to the nearly $12 million fine, the defendants are permanently banned from: (i) advertising, marketing, promoting, offering, or selling debt relief or credit repair products or services, or assisting others in such activities; (ii) misrepresenting or assisting others in misrepresenting information relating to any products or services and, specifically, financial products or services; (iii) making any misleading or unsubstantiated representation or assisting others in making any such representation about the benefits, performance, or result of any financial product or service; and (iv) engaging in any unlawful telemarketing practices. The defendants neither admit nor deny any of the FTC’s allegations.
On May 31, as part of a coordinated effort between the FTC and state law enforcement called Operation Game of Loans, the FTC announced settlements with two student loan debt relief companies. According to the FTC, the settlements resolve claims that the companies violated the FTC Act and the Telemarketing Sales Rule (TSR) by illegally charging consumers upfront fees and falsely promising to reduce or eliminate their student loan debt. The first settlement is the result of a lawsuit filed by the FTC in 2017, alleging that the company would enroll consumers in debt relief programs with an upfront fee and subsequent monthly payments, but would not fulfill promises to apply the payments to the consumers’ student loans. In addition to a $17 million fine, which will be partially suspended if the defendants turn over substantially all assets worth more than $4 million, the settlement bars the defendants from debt relief and credit repair activities in the future.
The second settlement also results from a 2017 complaint by the FTC alleging that a Los Angeles-based company defrauded consumers through programs offering mortgage assistance and student debt relief. According to the FTC, the company falsely promised distressed homeowners assistance in preventing foreclosure and promised student borrowers reduced monthly payments or loan forgiveness purportedly through the Department of Education. The $9 million settlement, which will be partially suspended once defendants turn over all assets worth $54,000 because of their inability to pay, also bans defendants from participating in debt relief and telemarketing activities in the future.
For more InfoBytes coverage on Operation Game of Loans see here.
On February 7, the FTC announced it was charging a student loan debt relief operation with violations of the FTC Act and the Telemarketing Sales Rule (TSR) for allegedly engaging in deceptive practices when marketing and selling their debt relief services. According to the complaint, defendants contacted consumers through personalized mailers that falsely claimed borrowers had pre-qualified for federal loan assistance programs that would reduce their monthly debt payments to a fixed payment or result in total loan forgiveness. However, the FTC asserted that monthly payments under federal income-driven repayment programs vary from year to year due to fluctuations in income, and that most consumers do not meet the programs’ strict eligibility requirements. Among other things, defendants allegedly charged illegal up-front fees to purportedly enroll consumers in programs, accepted monthly payments that were not applied towards student loans, and collected monthly fees that consumers believed were being applied to their loans but instead were going towards unrelated “financial education” programs. According to the FTC, defendants have collected over $28 million since 2014. In connection with the telemarketing of student loan debt relief services, the FTC also charged defendants with TSR violations for allegedly collecting illegal upfront fees and misrepresenting “material aspects of their debt relief services.” The FTC is seeking a permanent injunction against 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.”
This action is part of the FTC’s enforcement initiative, Operation Game of Loans, which targets companies that engage in practices that harm student loan borrowers. (See previous InfoBytes coverage here.)
On October 13, in partnership with 11 states and the District of Columbia, the FTC announced a federal-state law enforcement initiative to combat deceptive student loan debt relief scams. According to the FTC, “Operation Game of Loans” targets companies that engage in practices that harm student loan borrowers, such as allegedly (i) charging illegal upfront fees; (ii) making false or misleading statements promising, among other things, debt relief, loan forgiveness, reduced interest rates, and credit repair services; (iii) pretending to be affiliated with the government or loan servicers; (iv) engaging in deceptive marketing practices; (v) pocketing consumer fees rather than applying the money towards student loan balances; and (vi) charging consumers for document preparation services that are readily available to consumers for free. According to a press release issued by the FTC, the initiative “encompasses 36 actions by the FTC and state attorneys general against scammers alleged to have used deception and false promises of relief to take more than $95 million in illegal upfront fees from American consumers over a number of years.”
That same day, as part of “Operation Game of Loans,” Attorney General Lisa Madigan announced a lawsuit against a pair of entities (defendants) accused of allegedly violating Illinois law by charging upfront fees for services guaranteed to “lower monthly student loan payments, improve credit scores, get students out of default, and negotiate tax and student loan debt adjustments.” The complaint further alleges that not only do the defendants lack the ability to provide the advertised services, they also allegedly impersonate students to gain access to students’ Federal Student Aid IDs (the federal government prohibits entities from accessing federal student aid websites even if authorized by the borrower), and fail to refund consumers—as promised—if they fail to provide debt relief. The complaint seeks injunctive relief, restitution, and civil penalties.
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- Jeffrey P. Naimon to discuss "What to expect: The new administration and regulatory changes" at the Mortgage Bankers Association Legal Issues and Regulatory Compliance Conference
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- Steven R. vonBerg to discuss "LO comp challenges" at the Mortgage Bankers Association Legal Issues and Regulatory Compliance Conference
- Michelle L. Rogers to discuss "Major litigation" at the Mortgage Bankers Association Legal Issues and Regulatory Compliance Conference
- Michelle L. Rogers to discuss “The False Claims Act today” at the Federal Bar Association Qui Tam Section Roundtable